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Photographer Ellen von Unwerth's aim? To capture life in motion

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Photographer Ellen von Unwerth is European by birth and a New Yorker by choice, but during her semi-monthly trips to Los Angeles she happily settles in to work at the Chateau Marmont. The old hotel's long photographic legacy includes frequent stays by Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and Bruce Weber, even as the paparazzi are kept at bay just beyond the driveway.

The German-born Von Unwerth mainly comes to Los Angeles for work, shooting celebrity portraits, fashion magazine layouts and, increasingly, her daring personal work, sometimes at the Chateau itself. Her pictures come in grainy black-and-white and smoky color, capturing playful, highly sexualized scenes at a party of her own imagination.

And she works at her laptop into the night, carefully examining the day's photographs shot for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and her series of books, including 2011's career-spanning "Fraulein."

"I shoot a lot," says Von Unwerth, 59, sitting in the Chateau lobby with a tall glass of soda water, her hair a stylish tangle of blond waves and curls. "I shoot almost like filming. When I go through my pictures on the computer, it's like I'm watching a film. There's lots of movement, lots of things going on."

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There are celebrities and supermodels in the pictures, but also masks and high heels, often with a cigarette smoldering between a pair of glossy lips, and sometimes blindfolds, whips and long strands of pearls. Her current exhibition at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles is "Made in America," a collection of pictures of the famous and beautiful, and scenes otherwise connected to the culture here.

She brings to these photographs a distinctive flavor and attitude at a time when every bystander has a cell phone camera handy and celebrities and the near famous are photographed ad infinitum in both Hollywood and Manhattan.

In a few hours, Von Unwerth would be at the gallery opening, where the first image greeting visitors is of two pairs of female legs in brightly colored fishnets overlapping on a chair. Several models from her photographs were coming to the gallery. So was actor Dustin Hoffman.

"There's a different atmosphere, there's a different life, a different kind of people," Von Unwerth says of her American subjects. "It's also a different kind of pop culture. It's very inspiring. In Paris or in London, I always look more for the old places. I love the chateaus. But here I love the Hollywood scene and the cinema. There's so much history of that here."

One picture from 1991 has a model sashaying toward the huge Marlboro Man sign that famously stood for years outside the Chateau. (It was removed in 1999.) Another from 2011 has a woman on her back at a nightclub, kicking her high-heels toward a sign reading "Hollywood." Other pictures have Raquel Welch in form-fitting lace while having a smoke in 1994, and Lady Gaga relaxing in a coffin in 2009.

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The pictures are always sensual, never explicit, and mostly concerned with the desires and personalities of women, at times inspired by the 1950s pinup model Bettie Page and vintage pictures of "girls spanking each other with a hairbrush."

"I also shoot men, but my work is more about women. Men are more like accessories," she says with a laugh. Her favorite photographs are not carefully posed but captured spontaneously, she explains, "an unconscious moment, or an emotion that is touching you."

Von Unwerth was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1954 and raised partially in foster care before joining the circus as an assistant after high school. At 20, she began a decade as a high-fashion model, traveling as far as India and Africa, but never felt completely comfortable in front of the lens. Photographers also weren't usually interested in hearing her creative ideas for the pictures.

Her best experiences during that time were with Guy Bourdin, a hugely influential fashion photographer whose experiments with form and concept playfully pushed the boundaries of taste until his death in 1991.

"Guy Bourdin was pretty kinky, but in an artistic way," Von Unwerth recalls fondly.

"It was not the most happy period of my life," she says of modeling. "I became really happy when I began to take pictures. I could really express myself and be creative."

Her boyfriend at the time was fashion photographer Bruno Juminer, who gave her a 35-millimeter camera to use, explained how the light meter worked and soon taught her how to use a darkroom.

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"I photographed my model friends, and I made them up and dressed them, and I just had fun," Von Unwerth says. "Because we were friends, it was very easy and very relaxed, and they would do all kinds of silly things and move. And straight away, that was my style — I love when people are living in front of my camera instead of posing, being fun and sexy and crazy."

She developed a distinctive visual style in content and texture, drawn to shadowy, high-contrast images, working all night in the darkroom. The results were torrid and timeless. Her inspirations included Newton, Jacques Henri Lartigue, the pictures of nighttime Paris by Brassai and the sideshow portraits of Diane Arbus, each capturing moments and eras now gone.

"The first time I came to New York I went straight to Coney Island to see the people [Arbus] photographed, and it still existed: the tattooed man, the guy with a nail through his tongue," she says now. "I guess what's important is to be passionate about it. You cannot do it if you're not. I could do it day or night. I love it so much."

Von Unwerth began shooting with digital cameras about five years ago but is slowly switching back to film whenever possible. She was recently discussing digital with the wildlife photographer Nick Brandt when he said to her, "You know, it just doesn't turn me on." She understood.

"I thought about it, and it's true: Shooting film is a little bit more exciting. It's more precious, and it's more technical. You take it out and even the assistant is proud. Everything seems to be more electric. With digital you shoot and shoot, and it doesn't cost anything. The moment is not as precious."

Even so, Von Unwerth's sensibility emerges in either film or digital, in her more recent experiments with Polaroid-style instant film or her periodic work with moving pictures.

"I tried lots of different things, but in the end it's always the same," Von Unwerth adds with a laugh. "I shoot with people I like. I always have music, a little bit of Champagne, an idea for a story or concept. The great thing about photography is you can let it go and be spontaneous and just grab moments that happen. Those are often the best pictures."

Ellen von Unwerth, "Made in America," through Jan. 4, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon-Sat.; Fahey/Klein Gallery, 148 N. La Brea Ave.; (323) 934-2250, faheykleingallery.com

steve.appleford@latimes.com

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