The photographs of German-born artist Ellen von Unwerth have a certain whimsy, a vaudevillian character that lifts them beyond being fashion photographs or even erotic nudes. There is a sense of performance that might be attributable to her teen years, before becoming a fashion model then a photographer, when she joined the Munich circus.
"I joined the circus because I loved the atmosphere and being with the artists," she wrote to The Times via email. "I worked as a number girl, as the assistant to the knife throwers and clowns; this was an amazing time."
So a bare-breasted woman is caught in a mask as if at a masquerade ball. Or three models in various states of undress walk smiling away from a gate where a man hangs by his wrists. The clothes, when there are any, look great. It's high fashion with a spanking.
Von Unwerth's first exhibition in Los Angeles, simply titled "Photographs," opens Thursday and runs through Nov. 26 at the Fahey/Klein Gallery. Owner David Fahey calls the show, 65 photos in all, a mini-retrospective of her work over the last 15 years.
"She makes erotic photographs in fashion and editorial," says Fahey, "and incorporates shock and role playing, even sadomasochism, into her pictures, [which] is quite different from the more formal fashion photographs."
She has also shot an incredible array of celebrities. The world's best-known fashion models, actors, musicians and even post-"Harry Potter" Emma Watson have unbuttoned for Von Unwerth, and her eroticism has erupted into the mainstream editorial of Vogue and Vanity Fair, as well as advertising campaigns for Victoria's Secret, Banana Republic and Chanel.
At the gallery show, expect to see elaborate lingerie under lifted skirts, gender-bending play, plenty of bare breasts and bare behinds with a burlesque flavor that might make Bettie Page blush.
"Her photographs could be a study in female eroticism," adds Fahey. "The idea of women embracing their sexuality and their femininity at the same time has become her signature style."
The show coincides with the Nov. 1 release of "Fräulein," a 472-page book of Von Unwerth's work loaded with models and celebrities in various states of undress. Taschen released the collector's edition in 2009 for $1,000, and this time the erotic book is priced for the masses at $69.99, which Von Unwerth will be on hand to sign at the opening of "Photographs."
"All of the photos in ['Fräulein'] are extremely sexy, very provocative," says Creed Poulson, public relations manager for Taschen. "It probably took a woman to be able to shoot another woman this way."
Or another model.
"It was a great experience to be a model; I was working with great photographers and met wonderful and interesting people and could travel the world," Von Unwerth says. "On the other hand, it was frustrating not to be able to be creative and express myself, so I was much more satisfied when I discovered the other side of the camera."
Von Unwerth never had formal training as a photographer before picking up a camera. "A friend of mine gave me a camera and told me how to use it. On a trip to Kenya, I took pictures of kids and village people on the street."
The images were published in the early 1980s in the French magazine Jill. "I really had fun taking pictures, and I got more and more passionate about it."
Von Unwerth found fame in 1989 shooting Claudia Schiffer for Guess jeans and most recently photographed Rihanna in New York for her new album cover. She's also filmed music videos for pop stars including Duran Duran and Christina Aguilera, as well as commercials for Revlon and Clinique.
But whatever the subject, Von Unwerth wants her models to express themselves, even be silly, which might be why, no matter how exposed, her models never seem objectified — they're showing their personalities as well as their bodies. Remember the circus.
"She makes pictures that she likes to have fun with," Fahey says. "She's not worried about being risqué or politically incorrect."
Von Unwerth has said she didn't like holding still as a model, which might be why her photographs have a sense of movement, on both sides of the camera. "My spontaneous style of photography is coming along with my energy, and this is jumping over to the models. I love shootings full of life and fun; it is almost better than a party."