Circus girls are the best. I’ve said that before, and Ellen von Unwerth is the proof. When she was eighteen, she went to see a small circus in Munich, Germany and caught the eye of the director. In the following three months, she made a living out of dressing up in a top hat and fishnet stockings, putting perfume on people, blowing bubbles, handing knives to the knife-thrower and assisting clowns. But in spite of the inherent awesomeness of circuses and their girls, that’s not the part of von Unwerth’s entertainment career I want to focus on. While her life in pictures began with a creatively unfulfilling decade-long stint as a model (which began after she was spotted by a modeling agent on her very first day of university), it’s her photography that stole the show, first and foremost with a 1989 shoot for Guess? featuring some young German model named Claudia Schiffer. Since then, she has immortalized numerous other subjects – from that girl formerly known as James and Academy Award winners to mysterious Romani models – and her work has been published on magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Interview, Vogue, GQ, Esquire and Vanity Fair; featured in numerous exhibitions such as 2012’s Do Not Disturb at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London and books such as 1999’s Wicked and 2009’s Fraulein. You just want to stare at those pictures.
Maybe it’s because of their sometimes smoky, sometimes shaky look; or the sometimes vibrant, sometimes shadowy lighting; or the energy; or the spontaneity – a product of her very own dislike of being forced to stand still as a model – in the pictured scenarios; or the ability of the sexier qualities of the pictures to marry any other aesthetic; or the circus allusions every once in a while, perhaps? Or maybe there’s just something about the way the models are shot… Or all of the above. You just want to stare.