Photographer Ellen von Unwerth Talks Violet Chachki, Fashion Films and the Importance of Respect On-Location



CALENDAR GIRLS: Violet Chachki and Ellen von Unwerth have joined forces for a 2019 calendar, with each month bringing a new character.

The cross-discipline drag queen and photographer became friendly through fashion week parties and shows. “I am totally fascinated by Violet as a person, personality and of course how she looks. I’m also fascinated by the whole gender and transgender, transvestite movement,” von Unwerth said.

She said “inventing a little story for every month of the year is always an exciting challenge.” The calendar concept stemmed from “classic pin-up ideas, classic cheesecake photography, but I made it more true to today, edgier, a bit more fetish and dark,” von Unwerth said.

In Goa, India, for a private event performance Friday, Violet said the calendar cover image was inspired by one of her tattoos, reminiscent of a cover from John Willie’s fetish magazine, which was based on a René Gruau illustration. The drag queen wore archival pieces from Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier couture, as well as custom pieces from Prada and Miu Miu. “I hope my work and what I do provides a form of escape for certain people. Especially now politically or whatever you could be going through, it’s important to remember you should be having a good time and not taking things too seriously,” she said.

With exhibitions at La Hune in Paris and Opera gallery in Beirut up-and-running, von Unwerth is finessing a fashion film for the Russian model-turned-designer Ulyana Sergeenko. Trailers and promos for Amazon and VH1 have also kept von Unwerth busy. The photographer is also polishing up the second issue of her magazine Von, rounding up stylists, writers and other creatives. As was the case with the first, art director Ulysse Tanguy, who happens to be von Unwerth’s neighbor, will handle the second issue. “For the moment, I do all the pictures, but I’m starting to find other photographers. But I’m doing it because I love to take pictures. It’s a little bit frustrating to work for the magazines sometimes because you don’t have the freedom. So this is a playground for me and an amazing creative outlet,” she said. “Working with magazines has already become more restrictive because nobody has money any more. That’s a problem because production is always expensive. It’s also interesting when you don’t have a big budget. You have to be more creative. There are also more restrictions with clothes. Designers want to have a total look, the models want to have a one-girl story and the cover. Everything is much more complicated these days. But it’s still fun.”

Next year von Unwerth plans to unveil her first short non-fashion film. She has had plenty of practice. “For every shoot now we do a little film. You know what the brands are like now. They all need content, content, content. So for every shoot we do a mood film, a BTS film, a BTS of the BTS film..[laughs.] It’s a lot of work but it is also opens up your mind to how to take new pictures and make a film look interesting,” she said.

As for how things have changed following allegations of sexual misconduct against some leading photographers, von Unwerth said, “Everybody’s a bit scared now. It’s a different mood. You have to be so careful about what you say. It isn’t that way for me because first of all I am a woman. I am always super-careful with the surroundings and the people I am working with. I always make sure the girls are well-treated,” she said. “There is a sense of less freedom. You don’t joke like you did before. I think male photographers are probably quite freaked out, because they don’t want to do the wrong thing.”

The societal change underway should become “more flowing, with more respect coming from both sides. There are going to be new rules and hopefully things will become easier and more cool again,” she said.

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