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women sunbathing in vintage swimwear
CREDIT: Ellen Von Unwerth

The kitsch wonderland of fashion great Ellen von Unwerth HonFRPS

Renowned for her mischievous take on female sensuality, the recipient of the Editorial, Advertising and Fashion Photography Award 2020 describes how her Bavarian youth inspired a summery image

‘Freshly bloomed, Bavaria, 2015’ by Ellen von Unwerth 


In 2015 Ellen von Unwerth went back to Germany to work on a book project for the publisher Taschen, following a conversation with its managing director Benedikt Taschen. The photographer had spent her teens in the mountains of Bavaria and wondered if she could take pictures that put a fun twist on it. “It was all about Bavarian traditions and clichés but in a very tongue in cheek way,” she says. 

The result was Heimat, a book full of images of buxom models in plaits and shorts pictured milking cows, carrying tankards of ale, or churning butter. Through von Unwerth’s lens, Bavaria was reimagined as a camp wonderland. Benny Hill would have felt right at home.

Von Unwerth is one of the world’s leading fashion photographers. After working as a model herself for 10 years she picked up a camera and has since teamed up with supermodels and world-famous designers. She helped discover Claudia Schiffer and has collaborated with everyone from Katharine Hamnett to David Bowie and Kate Moss. A typical von Unwerth image is saturated in colour and glamour, but also often comes with a twist of offbeat humour, as can be seen in Heimat.

The photographer was fostered as a child and moved to Bavaria when she was 12. In her hippy teens she always found the place too conservative. But, she adds, she loved the clothes and the landscape, and all of that found its way into Heimat. “I did still have nice memories from my youth. So, I had fun to shoot it,” she tells the RPS Journal in an interview for the January/February 2021 edition.

‘Freshly bloomed’ was taken by a lake in the mountains, she explains. “I love the joy, the youth and the friendship about it. And, also, the kind of retro aspect of the 1940s bathing suits, and the bathing hats, which are not so flattering usually, but somehow in this picture look really cute and playful.”

Is there a significance to the red apple? “Yes, because I always love to tell a story and accessories like this make people think. You come back to the picture and you wonder what’s going to happen? Maybe they are going to feed a horse later on, or maybe they’re going to eat it all together. Who knows? It’s a fun way to get people thinking and enjoying the picture more.”

They could be four Eves with the apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

“That’s the nice thing – people can bring their own interpretation. But now that you say that, I might use it.”


Ellen von Unwerth HonFRPS shares her ‘best shots’ in the January/February 2021 issue of the RPS Journal


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