Ellen von Unwerth has made it through the storm, literally. A mini-blizzard has caused flight and traffic problems, but the 60-year old award-winning photographer, in Toronto for the opening of her exhibit “My Way” (at the Izzy Gallery now until January 25), has arrived without issue. And so we settle down to talk about her switch from a 10-year modeling career to photography, why she doesn’t consider her pictures sexual and the story behind three works featured in the exhibition.
Why did you make the switch from modelling to photography? Did you just pick up a camera one day? It was time to do something else, time to change. I was always very creative and I found that as a model, I didn’t get so much chance to be creative. I was not specially interested [in photography], but my boyfriend was a photographer and he gave me a camera, explained how it worked and I started to photograph my model friends. The pictures came and they looked sort of good. I was like “Wow, OK.” So I kept on doing it.
You have a very recognizable signature style: erotic, playful, strong. How did it develop? I was a model and very bored with just standing and looking to the left and to the right. I wanted to have life in the pictures, I always look for life, for something happening. So my style developed by pushing people to live in front of the camera, rather than just pose. And it happened that women felt very comfortable and it became this sensual thing. We’re just having fun and creating stories.
How do you choose the photographs that end up in an exhibit? It must be a daunting task. I have people helping me because it’s very difficult. Sometimes it’s better to have an eye from outside because you’re very close to your work. The theme of the show came because I chose this picture [“Baby, please don’t go”, above] as the invitation and I liked that she was so powerful and knew exactly where she was going. She’s doing it her way and there’s a bit of mystery.
What do you think the difference is between a powerful sexy photograph and one that is diminishing, or demeaning? I don’t find my pictures so sexual, I just find them strong, playful, powerful, women having fun. For me, they’re not that sexual. Maybe other people see differently, but for me it’s not like that. It’s more little stories about women. That’s why I called the exhibition “My Way,” it’s about women doing it their way, they don’t care, you know?
Let’s talk about some of the photographs in the exhibit, starting with You are Mine. How did one model end up the butterfly and the other, the catcher? This picture is from last summer, we did a whole thing on games, and one was catching the butterfly. [The butterfly model] was a dancer and she was very light and sweet and the other one was a little bit more bitchy [laughs].
So you cast models based on their personalities? Yes, I cast my models like actors. They have to be right for the role, otherwise it doesn’t work. It’s like a little mini-movie in a way, a picture.
Moving on to Angel Kiss, what’s the story behind this photograph? There is this beautiful cemetery in London and it’s totally overgrown with old graves. It’s so romantic and beautiful and I wanted to do a shoot there. This picture is the statues coming alive, the angels from the top of the grave coming alive. I always loved that shoot.
Finally, let’s talk about Rainy Day.
This was a shoot I did in New Orleans. It was an homage to the story of the 1900s red light district and the photos of E.J. Bellocq who showed all the working girls. I really loved those pictures so much. So it was inspired by that. It’s one of my favourite themes, New Orleans.
“My Way” runs at the Izzy Gallery now until January 25, 2015