Ellen von Unwerth’s unseen polaroids capture the golden age of supermodels

A time capsule to another era, the photographer is auctioning off a handful of her most evocative shots of Kate, Naomi and Claudia.

"These kinds of polaroids don't exist anymore," Ellen von Unwerth tells me on the phone from Paris. While she mainly shoots digitally now, in the 90s and early 00s, Ellen used Type 100 peel-apart film as a preview. It was a quick method to see how a photoshoot would develop. Decades later, her visual archive of polaroids eventually became stolen moments: small windows into the peak of the supermodel era. 

Phillips will be presenting Ultimate Ellen von Unwerth, a sale of her Polaroids, on 22 November 2022, with exhibitions in Paris and London beforehand. These previews feature pure nostalgia: a little insight behind the scenes when much less was known about the lives of supermodels outside of the glossy editorials and campaigns. Her polaroids add colour to those missing details.

"Everybody knew them and was inspired by them, and, at the same time, they didn't really know a lot about them," Ellen says. "There was no Instagram; there was no social media. That was their charm. They were mysterious, and they were goddesses. So the polaroids give a different aspect of the pictures you've seen. So hopefully, they make a nice memory," she adds.
Each polaroid has a story, and Ellen can recall them as if they happened yesterday. Throughout our conversation, the photographer refers to each model casually, only ever by their first name, seeing the collection as part of a "family album". "The picture of Kate [Moss],for example, "was just a moment where we chatted, and we had a coffee. I had the polaroid camera, and I took this quick shot, and I think there's something intimate about it. You feel kind of close to the person. That's what I really discovered about those pictures when I put them out for this show."
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, but now residing in Paris, Ellen herself worked as a model before her boyfriend at the time gifted her a camera. She found modelling too restrictive ("No, no. Don't move. Move to the left. Move to the right," she recalls), while photography better suited her temperament. But her years of experience as a model taught her to understand both sides of the camera and build trust between her and the women she photographed. In 1989, she shot an über-popular Guess campaign starring a 19-year-old Claudia Schiffer. Both credit this collaboration as boosting their careers. 
From then on, it was a constant stream of assignments, landing jobs from brands, and magazines, including i-D. She met and worked with Naomi Campbell at the beginning of her modelling career, aged 16. When asked about supermodels and the zeitgeist of those years, Ellen only expresses love and genuine enthusiasm. "These girls were amazing. They were gorgeous. They were all very good actresses. They could make a garbage bag look incredible on the runway. It was a carefree time: backstage at shows, all the parties and champagne. People were having fun, and the designers would make special outfits for the girls to come out like a queen."
Nowadays, Ellen continues to photograph some of the biggest names in popular culture: just browse through her Instagram profile, and the images speak for themselves. Sydney Sweeney, Rihanna, Zoë Kravitz, Bella Hadid, Jennifer Lopez, Megan Fox, and the Kardashians are just a few of the famous faces on her feed — each photo emitting a certain kind of mischief particular to her work. 
"Each one, I can still hear the laughter," she says of the polaroids. "The picture of Paris Hilton when she sprays the boy with the hose, and everyone was running around and trying not to get wet. For me, it's like I'm back at that moment. It's very emotional. They're my precious moments. It's great to share them with the world."
'Ultimate Ellen von Unwerth' is on view in Paris, France, from 7-11 November 2022 and later in London from 16-22 November 2022. Her Polaroids will be sold on 22 November 2022. 

All images courtesy Ellen Von Unwerth

Source: I-D

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