“Everybody loves the ’90s and ’00s era in fashion, so I chose a lot of images from that period, from early shoots with Kate Moss for Vogue through to advertising campaigns with Paris Hilton for Guess,” the photographer tells Vogue of her upcoming Phillips exhibition.
Ellen von Unwerth’s upcoming Polaroids exhibition at Phillips might never have happened but for a piece of industry gossip. “In the ’90s, before everyone shot digitally, you would always take Polaroids to get a sense of what a photograph would look like, the lighting and composition and poses,” the German photographer explains from Paris, where Ultimate Ellen von Unwerth will go on display on 7 November before traveling to Phillips’s gallery space on Berkeley Square. “In the beginning, I would just throw them away after each shoot. Then I heard that someone had asked Helmut Newton if they could keep one of his Polaroids from a set, and he said, ‘Sure, if you give me $1,000…’ I started looking at them a bit differently after that!”
Having been scouted by a modeling agent on her first day at Munich University, Von Unwerth famously made the transition into photography in 1989 after capturing a 17-year-old Claudia Schiffer for Elle Germany—launching both the supermodel’s career and her own in the process. “I just got so excited by how much she resembled Brigitte Bardot in the pictures, cool and sexy and kittenish,” she says. Those adjectives describe Von Unwerth’s work more generally, too; her photography is sensual and empowering, fantastic and intimate all at once, with every supermodel worthy of the name posing for her over the last three decades. As she once told Vogue: “My girls are proud of their womanhood.”
Fortunately for posterity, Von Unwerth started meticulously cataloguing her Polaroids after hearing about Newton’s comment, archiving them in boxes in her studio. “Some I would take home for my daughter. I asked quite a lot of celebrities—Madonna, Sophia Loren, Beyoncé—to sign them for her. She had them stuck up all over her bedroom wall.” And while Von Unwerth typically shoots digitally now, she’s still enamored with Polaroids. “I’ve actually got rolls and rolls of expired film; I keep it in the fridge for more artsy shoots, because you never quite know how it’s going to turn out. Sometimes there’s a line across the photograph, but I quite like that.”
When it came to choosing the 20 Polaroids for Ultimate Ellen von Unwerth, the former model leaned into Y2K nostalgia, working with Phillips’s head of photographs for Europe, Yuka Yamaji, to make her final selection. “Everybody comments on how much I remember about different shoots—I forget a lot of other things in my life, but I can recall exactly who I shot and where,” she explains with a laugh. “It’s all so vivid in my head even now. Everybody loves the ’90s and ’00s era in fashion, so I chose a lot of images from that period, from early shoots with Kate Moss for Vogue to advertising campaigns with Paris Hilton for Guess.”
Ahead of the Polaroids going under the hammer at Phillips on 22 November, Von Unwerth takes Vogue through some of the highlights from the sale.
For more details about the Ultimate Ellen von Unwerth auction, see the Phillips website.
“Kaffee Klatsch”, Karen Mulder, Café de Flore, Paris, 1994
“This is from an haute couture shoot for American Vogue, styled by Grace Coddington in Paris with a dog in every picture. One even made it into the Polaroids. I took this in front of Café de Flore.”
“Swinging Berlin”, Twins, 1998
“I became obsessed with these twin models – both had these huge blue eyes. I did a whole story with them as cabaret girls from the ’20s. The idea here is that the two of them had a day off, and were going to the funfair together.”
“Like a Dude”, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer, Paris, 1996
“I rarely work in a studio, but this is for an Italian brand, Swish. I told Claudia [Schiffer] and Naomi [Campbell] to act ‘butch’, playing with their zippers and having a lot of attitude.”
“Miss America”, Claudia Schiffer, Saint Tropez, 1994
“This is from a calendar I shot in the South of France with Claudia [Schiffer], where she played 12 different characters. I remember in one she’s like a thief, climbing on the roof, while here she’s dressed as Uncle Sam.”
“Splendour in the Garden”, Kate Moss, Miami, 1993
“This is one of my early editorials with Kate [Moss]. She must have been about 16, right after the cover of The Face with Corinne Day. It’s a beauty shoot for American Vogue, and it featured six other girls, including Shalom [Harlow]. This is Kate in Miami, having coffee in the garden.”
This post was originally published on Vogue UK