We meet the legendary photographer and i-D contributor to discuss her new book, a very sexy romp through the bucolic German countryside.
Ellen's in Los Angeles to launch Heimat, her new book with Taschen, the third she's published with the house. The veritable tome is a gorgeous romp through the seasons of Bavaria - a naked romp to be precise, in arch von Unwerth style. Maidens in dirndls milk cows, ski, and chop logs surrounded by bucolic countryside. Glorious. The photographer, who lives between New York and LA, met i-D at her exhibition at the Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles to talk about the power of women, Germany's place in the world, and making Bavaria sexy again.
What made you want to return to Bavaria for the book?
Well what I said is, you know, I didn't grow up there, I spent part of my life there; when I was 10 years old I moved to Bavaria. And at the time I was a hippie, and I wasn't into it - it was so conservative, and hanging on to its traditions. We were like rebels, we lived in a commune - I mean later on, not when I was 10.
But 30 years after moving away, I thought back to the very beautiful style to the clothes, to the way of living, to the traditions... I wanted to go back and show it in my way [laughs]. I made it into a parody.
How long did you shoot for?
Well it was really about the seasons. We went back three times, but we weren't very lucky with the weather. We went to different places - places with very old farms, I wanted to capture the traditional ways of doing things.
What did the locals think?
I don't know, but so far they seem to like it! Bavarian magazines have already covered the book. Maybe I cannot go back! So far though it's okay. We didn't see that many people.
It feels empowering to walk into a gallery and see images of joyful naked women when female sexuality is so under threat. Was that something you were thinking about?
I mean it's kind of crazy, it all seems to go backwards. We were fighting in the 70s for freedom, and now it seems we're going back to Puritanism. But you know, I'm German, so for me it's different; we don't have a problem with nudity. It's the opposite, we celebrate it. For me, from growing up in Germany, it's not a problem. I think the body is beautiful, it's always inspired artists.
It's depressing and frightening what's going, and yesterday when I came into the gallery I was like "Wow." It's colourful and full of life, and I think that's what I wanted to do.
I'd never thought about dirndls being sexy - is that a German thing?
It's a very sexy country! And the dirndls are very sexy because it pushes up, like a corset; it pushes the boobs up! I think it's very sexy. The country, the sausages, the knodel - it's a very sexy country!
How often do you go back to Germany?
To be honest I always go back to Berlin now. The last time I went to Bavaria was to make the book.
How did you cast the models?
Well I knew them already, and I knew they had to be very voluptuous to fill out those dirndls! You just need girls who feel free and love to take off their clothes - it's important because I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable.
Tell me about the title, Heimat - it's not a directly translatable concept but it means longing for your country?
It's more about how it forms you. Where you're born, where your roots are. Going back to your roots. So it's a romantic name, but also tongue in cheek, because it's a parody of the idea, because it's a bit camp and exaggerated. There's something very camp about Bavarian culture! I can't believe people actually wear those clothes. But they do! At Oktoberfest it's kind of incredible, they all still do it. But also, it's great that people hold onto traditions.
Germany currently seems to be leader of the free world - was that something you ever imagined?
No not at all, because when I was living there it was the opposite. We were hippies and we were really hated by the neighbours! And it was very conservative. When I go to Berlin now, I must say, you feel free there. Before the war, in the 20s, it was an incredible place. I wish I'd been there - all the cabarets, the art, the decadence.
What makes you excited to keep shooting pictures?
I'm very inspired by people. They tell you stories, or you see them in a situation, and it inspires me to work. I wake up in the morning and think about what I want to do, it's never ending.
Text Jack Sunnucks
Photography Ellen von Unwerth