Ellen von Unwerth Draws a Crowd at Staley-Wise Gallery

Ellen signing her latest book – Photo by Laurel Marcus

Provocateur: A person who deliberately behaves controversially in order to provoke argument or other strong reactions.  The British English definition seems to be the most fitting to describe famed fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth’s latest exhibition entitled “The Provocateur”at Staley-Wise Gallery through May 11.

Invitation Only Baccarat 2007 – Photo courtesy Staley-Wise gallery

The gallery describes it like this: “These exhibition images reflect a winking provocateur; not so much the object of lust but the playful instigator – innocent and naughty. While eroticism is in the forefront of many of these images, fantasy and humor unite von Unwerth’s vision of her subjects simply having fun – with each other, and with the viewer who they tease, taunt, and provoke.”

Bye Bye Paris Olya Ivanisevic, Paris 2006 Photo courtesy Staley Wise gallery

I attended the opening cocktail party on Thursday night to celebrate Unwerth’s fifth solo exhibition here, which included several never-before-seen pieces. It would be an understatement to say it was a mob scene – I used to regularly cover this beat before COVID, but this was my first time back, and it was daunting.

Eileen O’Kane Kornreich, Jesse Frohman, & Robert Santori – Photo by Laurel Marcus

Models (current and former), stylists (current and less current), fellow photographers, collectors, admirers, and fans — people of all ages were here, some waiting in a mile-long drinks line. Ellen herself held court, graciously talking to those who approached her. She armed herself with sunglasses early in the evening and carried her camera in a well-worn case over her shoulder all night.

Guests – Photo Laurel Marcus

Von Unwerth’s life story equipped her well for this milieu – she worked in the circus as an assistant to the knife-thrower! Her life could have been tragic as she was born in Germany in 1954 and orphaned at an early age. She was discovered in Munich and modeled for nearly a decade before discovering that her genuine interest lay in being on the other side of the camera.

“I know what it’s like when you feel really uncomfortable, so I do everything in my power to make them feel at ease – and to live and laugh and move.”

– Ellen von Unwerth

Her work has been published in many leading magazines and on album covers. She has directed music videos for Rihanna, Janet Jackson, Courtney Love, Duran Duran, and Beyonce, as well as commercials and campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, L’Oreal, Thierry Mugler, and Uniqlo. She is credited with discovering a young model named Claudia Schiffer in a famous campaign for Guess.

In 2018, she launched a creative magazine that promoted a modern and edgy approach to photography: Ellen von Unwerth’s “VON.” She has also published nine books – a few she signed last night. Other exhibitions include the inaugural New York space of Fotografiska in 2020 and, most recently, at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta with a retrospective of her work in 2023.

Latest Comments:

  1. I discovered Dries 15 years ago as I was walking through Barbeys NY in LA. There was this amazing coat…

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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