His name may be forgotten, but his images remain iconic. Schön! rediscovers the man who changed the face of fashion photography.
“You see a woman in a ball gown with a gun and you say, ‘Oh, that’s fashion,’ but that started with Chris von Wangenheim. Not too many people know who he was, which is why we did this book,” says Roger Padilha. Roger and his brother, Mauricio Padilha, are co-authors of GLOSS, the first monograph on Chris von Wangenheim’s photography, and co-owners of MAO, a fashion PR agency in New York City. Von Wangenheim “took what was happening in culture and re-imagined violent scenarios with high fashion,” explains Roger. Before that, fashion photography was meant to fascinate or to inspire awe but not to shock people.
Von Wangenheim moved from Germany to New York in 1965, at a time when civil unrest was fervent. Riots erupted as the result of a police shooting in Harlem and continued to break out “at intervals regular enough to make natives and tourists alike picture the nighttime streets as hostile jungles, teeming with predators and regressing into barbarism,” as described by Mark Caldwell in New York Night. Crime reached unprecedented heights by the late 1970s; murders and felonious assaults more than doubled in comparison to the previous decade. Von Wangenheim would photograph at night with a ring light to simulate the flashlights and siren lights of a crime-scene. One of his iconic images features Patti Hansen posing seductively in front of a burning car in New York. “You don’t know if she’s a victim or if she did something,” says Mauricio. This photograph inspired scenes in the 1978 film, Eyes of Laura Mars.
The 1970s marked a peak in the sexual liberation movement that challenged traditional codes of gender and sexuality, including the normalisation of contraception, public nudity and premarital sex. Pornography became mainstream; Deep Throat played in local movie theaters across the United States. These changes in culture encouraged magazines to reshape their formats to appeal to erotic desires. “There was a marriage of pornography and fashion that pushed the limits to see how much people would accept,” says Roger. Fashion magazines like Oui and Viva began to include Playboyesque centrefolds, while Playboy started covering fashion.
In 1972, Diana Vreeland, veteran editor-in-chief of American Vogue, was fired. She explained, simply, that, “They wanted a different magazine.” In the same year, American Vogue became von Wangenheim’s primary outlet. He also photographed for the German, French and Italian editions, as well as for Esquire, Playboy, Interview and Viva magazines. One of von Wangenheim’s favourite muses was the late supermodel Gia Carangi, who did her first major fashion shoot with him. His notorious images of her standing naked behind a chain link fence were depicted in the film, Gia. “People know this photo because they’ve seen Angelina Jolie recreate it for the movie, but they’ve never [actually] seen it; it was never published,” says Mauricio. Not until now.
Von Wangenheim is also well known for his advertisements for Christian Dior, Calvin Klein and Revlon. He was given unprecedented freedom to make whatever pictures he liked for Dior, which introduced its Your Dior campaign as an attempt to make the brand more approachable. Von Wangenheim shot Lisa Taylor in diamonds, as a Doberman pinscher clenches its jaws around her wrist – an image that now adorns the cover of GLOSS. But while the images appear to be spontaneous, Mauricio elucidates that von Wangenheim “would strategically plan exactly what he wanted to shoot before anybody got there.”
Von Wangenheim didn’t indulge much off set; he preferred creative conversations about work with his friend and mentor, Helmut Newton. There was a playful competition between the two and they would inspire each other to go further. Roger and Mauricio, who finish each other’s sentences, explain, “Chris would do a photo of a woman being pushed into a swimming pool, so it looks like she’s about to fall in. Then Helmut would do a picture of someone just about to hit the water. So then Chris would do another image, that would come out a couple of months later in Vogue, of a woman completely submerged [with] her feet sticking out.”
Von Wangenheim died in a car crash in 1981, at the age of 39. At this time, fashion photography was not considered to be art, so it was not preserved well. Archives for top publications consisted of negatives stapled to magazine pages placed on shelves. Most became damaged over time. Therefore, only a dozen or so boxes of von Wangenheim’s personal work remained. Christine, his only daughter, brought them to the MAO showroom so Roger and Mauricio could compile the book. GLOSS finally gives Chris von Wangenheim’s formerly ephemeral legacy its deserved permanence.