A review of Fraulein by Ellen von Unwerth

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

By Ellen von Unwerth
Foreword by Ingrid Sischy
Taschen, 2011
ISBN: 9783836528085

When Ellen von Unwerth worked as a model, a stint of several years, she apparently greatly disliked holding a pose, being the stationary object of a mainly male gaze.

So her practice as a photographer is interesting and involves encouraging her models to move and be active, as she shoots rapidly from the hip. It is most likely this process that gives her photos their frequent sense of wild vivacity and open narrative. There is a before and an after, quite literally, consisting of those photos that in the end were not used. The photos that do see the light of day capture a moment in time. They don’t look posed because they are not.

As for the photos contained in Fraulein, they consist in the main of good girls playing at being bad; and when they’re bad they are, of course, better. Mae West never spoke a truer word.

Most of von Unwerth’s subjects are famous for being supermodels (Naomi, Kate, Nadja and their many sisters), singers (notably Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga), burlesque artistes (including the delectable Dita Von Teese) and the like. But now one is best known for being the wife of the French President.

With several photos there is a clandestine element/demimonde vibe such as can be found in Brassai’s photos of Parisian nightlife or one or two obscure Erich von Stroheim films. And you might be in a burlesque or a brothel, a circus or a swanky hotel during wartime. A particular photo, ‘Bathing Beauties’ (1992), suggested somehow a Cecil B. DeMille film. Yes, there are some domestic scenes but they are hardly genteel. These young women are more likely to be found dancing on the table rather than setting it. In one photo (‘Dinner’, 1998) she is what’s for dinner; she’s not making it.

I’d describe each photo as a performance, with cosplay being the predominant aesthetic: having got all dressed up, these ladies now tease and provoke to camera. And like New Burlesque, you can package it as empowerment if you want. Personally, I like the unbridled joy and playfulness to be found in a photo like ‘New Shoes’ (1996): a girl all aglow, with her legs in the air, showing off her new shoes. Besides, there is elsewhere the irony of a seeming innocence, a dallying coyness, which is yet deeply provocative.

The humour in ‘Tell Me Yes’ (1993), though present, is altogether blacker: a manacled woman attempts to strangle a man with the chain that binds her. And in fact quite a few photos feature fetish/BDSM scenes, with loss of control being a prominent theme. There’s bondage, as you might imagine, but also fairy tale elements: blindfolded girls stepping into a forest. Loss of control functions as a kind of portable disability.

Ellen von Unwerth’s photography is intriguing, transgressive and erotically charged. She’s like a real-life Laura Mars, for those who know the Faye Dunaway film. Only the vital tableaux in Fraulein are too lively and vivacious to make for any crime scene photo.

Her work provides a living link between Pina Bausch and Lady Gaga, whom she has photographed. Her photo shoot of Christina Aguilera, a young woman who deserves a gold medal for tease, gives an insight into von Unwerth’s practice as a photographer.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com