Big-time fashion photog makes rare Toronto visit

Ellen von Unwerth launches exhibition at Izzy Gallery

Blast_Radius_columnI have a new favourite place in midtown Toronto. It’s the Izzy Gallery.

Brothers Izzy and Damir Sulejmani brought big-time fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth to their Yorkville showroom on Dec. 11.

Listen up midtown, if you don’t know who she is you don’t know what you’re missing.

She’s an incredible shutterbug whose work I admired during the early 1990s and even now. The 60-year-old, who has captured the visages of Drew Barrymore, Shalom Harlow, Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer, has her work on display, in the exhibition My Way, at 106 Yorkville Ave. until Jan. 25.

Now, if Schiffer’s image doesn’t bring to mind an early ’90s ad campaign with a sultry blonde, doing her best Brigitte Bardot — with pursed lips and a lacy bustier done in black and white — I don’t know if you know your fashion pop culture.

Jeanne Beker is one who does know her fashion, and of course she introduced von Unwerth as her friend to the three dozen art aficionados gathered at the exhibition launch.

There were many questions asked about von Unwerth’s transition from in front of the lens to behind it — she is, after all, a former model — and her risque photos depicting feminine beauty, with a splash of erotica.

“When we first met, she was not famous,” von Unwerth said, in response to Beker’s question of what was Schiffer’s magic. “She was a cute girl, and I did some pictures for Elle magazine, and when I looked at them I was like, ‘Oh, she looks just like Brigitte Bardot’.

“I didn’t see it in real life, but after that I totally gave her that look: teased hair, the eyeliner, and I totally pushed it.

“We did Guess together and it was like so, yeah.”

Yes, von Unwerth could be credited with launching Claudia Schiffer’s modelling career. The photographer, perhaps drawing from experience as a catwalk denizen herself, was a fixture of the early ’90s fashion explosion that saw so many models become household names.

Stacey McKenzie, a Canadian supermodel and judge on Canada’s Next Top Model, called von Unwerth’s appearance here “a big deal.”

“Ellen is one of the biggest photographers in the world,” she said, admitting she came down from Markham in a snowstorm to attend. “It’s unfortunate to say this, but it’s very rare for her to come to Toronto and be a part of the fashion/arts scene.

“It shows us that we as Canadians, especially in the fashion community, we’ve got it going on.”

McKenzie worked with von Unwerth on several shoots, including for Interview magazine and Italian Vogue and she admitted she was the only photographer to let her explore her feminine side.

“She was the first photographer to shoot me in a very sexy way, because all the other photographers were shooting me in a very androgynous — tomboy-like way,” she said. “But she took it to the next level, and definitely shot me like this sexy, badass black chick. Clients started to look at me differently.”

As for Izzy, how he managed to bring in one of most lauded shooters in the fashion industry was all elementary, especially since they put on a show for her before, in April, 2012.

And of course, it’s all about raising awareness of the photographers.

“Fashion photographers are here, on the scene,” he said. “Fashion photos fetch a million bucks — it’s not something you buy for $20.

“People slowly learn, you bring in the big names they learn there’s a value in photography.”

That’s what I like to hear.

The Sulejmani brothers are doing an incredible job of exposing the city to fashion photography.

And as I escaped into the bowels of the TTC, a young woman carrying a Guess bag passed me on the platform.

Whose picture should appear on it? Claudia Schiffer.

And who shot it? I’m sure you know by now.