Von Unwerth’s pictures — vivid, kitschy, kittenish — always tell a story with a sense of intimacy and coy sexuality. She has turned her lens to the pastoral simplicity and loveliness of her native Bavaria. This latest collection of pictures is stylised and sexy, a joyful romp through the changing seasons of the storybook settings of the sleepy Bavarian countryside.
Curvy, creamy-skinned girls spilling out of their dirndls and posing suggestively, as they milk cows, peel potatoes and chop wood. Some getting cosy together on the grass in vintage floral bikinis; others tearing through the alpine valleys on horseback, with windswept hair and wearing nothing but a crown of flowers — lending to the fantasy narrative of country girls gone wild.
The German-born model-turned-photographer, adored by the fashion industry for her playful, provocative work, has made a career out of producing iconic imagery of supermodels, music and movie stars, and campaigns for Chanel, Dior, Diesel and Miu Miu.
The title Heimat, which has no proper English translation, roughly means homeland or going back to your roots. That’s exactly what she has done, revisiting and finding inspiration in the rolling green hills of rural Bavaria where, after a childhood spent in Frankfurt, she lived for part of her teens — a place that she never felt she fitted in to but rediscovers and reinvents with fondness.
“It’s like going back in time,” says Von Unwerth, who now splits her time between New York and Paris. “I lived there between the ages of 10 and 16. At the time, as a teenager, I was a hippie and lived in a commune and we were really hated by the neighbours. It was too conservative, too traditional. But 30 years after moving away, when I went back, it was incredible to see all these people still dressing in dirndls and lederhosen and hanging on to their traditions. I thought it would be fun to do a book… to capture the old farms and places, but to do it my way.”
Her way of spearing clichés, in a cheeky, irreverent, style, melds folksy old-world traditions with flirtatious rebelliousness. She takes the mundane and ordinary, and gives it a subversive twist with an element of fantasy. The weighty 454-page tome has been described as an “enchanted tour of Bavaria”.
Having been a successful model for more than a decade, Von Unwerth has a special relationship with models, and has made several into stars, including Claudia Schiffer and Eva Herzigova in the memorable sultry Bardot-esque black-and-white Guess campaign of the 1990s. For this series, she cast girls with a mischievous streak. “I love taking pictures of women who have lots of personality and character,” she says. “I also knew they had to be voluptuous to fill out those dirndls, and needed girls who feel free and are not scared to show their sensuality.”
Von Unwerth, who once worked in a circus as a knife-thrower’s assistant before becoming a model, had just as much fun creating these fantastical little scenes. Happily for her, “Bavarian culture is very camp”.
Heimat by Ellen von Unwerth (Taschen), available as a limited collectors’ edition of 1,500 copies, numbered and signed, is out April 2017. The show runs until 2 May 2017 at Taschen Gallery, Los Angeles.