Black cats, broomsticks, and Adriana Lima: it’s Ellen von Unwerth’s Wicked.
You have been warned.
Back in 2018, I subscribed to the Observers blog and started receiving their weekly (or biweekly?) newsletter. For someone trying to cut down on photobook purchases (believe it or not, I was then and, equally unbelievably, I am now…), it’s probably not the best thing, what with photographers, designers, and others writing a bit about their practice and their favorite photobooks and all. Out of the first 5 or 10 posts, I probably Bookfindered 8-12 books, and Wicked was one of them.
Off the recommendation of Miranda Barnes, I bought Wicked, as I make conscious attempts to diversify my library and because the other books she recommended— Robert Frank’s The Americans, Eli Reed and Paul Theroux A Long Walk Home, Thirstin Howl, III and Tom Gould Bury Me With The Lo On, and The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing The Promise—were either unavailable, too expensive, or already in my collection.
I also looked around at von Unwerth’s work (and ordered a copy of Egoïste, vol. 18, which features her more contemporary work) and was quite impressed with her glossy, high glamor and high contrast beauty and fashion work, and looked forward to checking out a more personal and unified project.
Wicked is fairly simple: Adriana Lima is just wicked. She wears a witch hat, rides a broom, gets chased by a vampire, shrieks and cowers when Godzilla attacks, vamps, pouts, looks alternately “who me?” innocent and absolutely, well, wicked. Lima looks to be having a blast throughout, as von Unwerth’s models always seem to, and the whole thing just works. The images are playful and fun and everything looks sort of real, somehow, like that was really Lima, really being there, really having a great silly time, and there just happened to be a rockstar fashion photographer there to capture it all.
Von Unwerth began her career as a model, and so perhaps understands models better than, say, Helmut Newton, and so may be able to find a different sort of rapport with them. Or maybe not. Still, she captures some really great expressions and gestures and poses and all, more free- and spontaneous-seeming than the other fashion work I see or am familiar with.
Honestly, there’s not much more to say. I’m only now beginning to direct my sitters (my wife, mostly, but also my in-laws, mother), and I hope to one day be able to get such easy expressions and movements, though my models will more than likely be wearing far more clothes than was Lima at this particular shoot, and will be everyday sorts of people, not high fashion supermodels.
But I digress. Really, it’s a fun set of photographs.
Wicked came out in 1998 and available mostly on the secondary market, but von Unwerth is still at it, now working mostly in color, still producing her wonderfully glossy high fashion work. She was prominently featured in Egoïste 18 and her magazine Von is new, with two nearly sold out issues. Her website is a coming soon page at time of writing, but some of her current personal projects appear to be on the Von magazine site. Taschen have put out a few books of her work and have collector’s item versions in clamshell boxes and signed prints available that are way out of reach for me, but the trade editions are much cheaper used via Bookfinder. Good stuff, I think, and it makes me want to shoot more black & white and explore some of von Unwerth’s color work…
If you have any interest in fashion photography or contemporary portraiture, you could do worse than checking out Ellen von Unwerth’s excellent work.