Wunderkind – Glass looks at the career of the tearaway photographic protégé Chris von Wangenheim

Ironically, the year of  the death of the photographer, Elsa Neuländer-Simon, known as Yva,  coincided with the birth of another highly talented German photographer who would complete this holy trinity of fashion photography. Chris von Wangenheim would become one of the most sought after men working in his field in the 1970s, before his untimely death and before he had the chance to fully come into his own. Helmut Newton, who was well acquainted with the younger photographer, once commented that, “I met [Chris] in the bar of the Hotel Inghilterra [in Rome], and from then on we became very close friends. He recognised what other people see as a very Germanic, very Berlin, influence in my pictures. He also saw the success this had brought to me. He tried to emulate my style and was very influenced by my work, especially the sado-masochistic side.”

Helmut also pointed out, “My wife and I were very fond of him. He used to hang around with us a lot when he was in Europe. He was something of a German wunderkind and I was proud to have a small influence on his work. We spent a lot of time laughing together.” The Breslau native (now Wroclaw), whose father was a German officer captured on the Russian front and who never returned home, “became as much a victim of the Nazi regime as had Helmut,” according to Philippe Garner.

Gia Carangi getting tattooed, 1975Gia Carangi getting tattooed, 1975. Photograph: Chris von Wangenheim

The two photographers had a sense of commonality and of shared experience. “Helmut saw in [Chris] the seeds of a genuine talent, a talent born of trauma,” says Garner. Like Newton, von Wangenheim’s work carries traces of old Europe, but the younger artist’s photographs are rawer, more debauched. By employing low lighting and a cool, cruel and often sadistic edge to his scenarios, allusions to German Expressionist cinema are perceived. A photograph taken by an eleven year-old von Wangenheim of his mother in a leopard skin coat set against the mountains and their house – a picture he was set on getting despite his mother’s protestations – was a precursor to his later work: “From that time on I realised that getting my picture was more important to me than the discomfort of someone not understanding, or someone’s opposition to my goals.”

Through his juxtaposition of a dark world of sexuality, violence, and voyeurism with that of overly glamorised beauty, von Wangenheim skilfully combined seduction and terror in a single photographic frame. “I admired American fashion photography and identified with it more than what I saw in Germany,” von Wangenheim once said. In a 1977 article in Time magazine entitled The Sexes: Really Socking it to Women, the photographer, who always had an affinity for scars and tattoos – as exemplified by Gia Carangi in Tattooed Girl or his controversial photo for Rizzoli of a nude woman standing on her head, scar above pubic hair – commented on the ubiquity of sex and violence in fashion photography, stating that “the violence is in our culture, so why shouldn’t it be in our pictures?”


Gia and models in California desert, 1979Gia and models in California desert, 1979. Photograph: Chris von Wangenheim

While the 1960s had been a time of portraying a certain youthfulness and freedom in fashion photography, it “wasn’t until the ‘70s that a strong sexual element entered this aspect of the visual culture,” says Garner. “Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin and Chris von Wangenheim led this progression, incorporating a powerful sexual dimension in their editorial images.” A friend of photographer Diane Arbus, von Wangenheim remarked that “photographers like Avedon, like Diane, were being lionised, romanticised. It was weird because photographers were getting into images of cruelty and the forbidden. Fashion photography would soon turn pornographic.”

In 1965 von Wangenheim emigrated to New York to hone his craft and within a few years had set up his own studio and had begun working for Harper’s Bazaar. An eight-page spread featured in the magazine in the summer of 1968 helped garner the photographer recognition within the industry: “I pulled it off but it was very nerve-racking because Bazaar was a big affair for me at the time.”

By 1971 he was photographing for Italian Vogue and French Vogue, and in 1972 became Contributing Editor at American Vogue. Von Wangenheim worked on numerous advertising campaigns for top brands such as Revlon, Christian Dior and Helena Rubinstein, and contributed to magazines like Esquire, Oui, Playboy and Interview. His ad for Dior sunglasses featuring a gun-toting fur-clad vixen stands out as one of his favourites: “Capable, authoritative women are erotic and a turn on; goddesses I definitely hate.”

Christian Dior sunglasses advertisement 1976. Photograph: Chris von WangenheimChristian Dior sunglasses advertisement 1976. Photograph: Chris von Wangenheim

One of von Wangenheim’s most iconic fashion spreads features model Gia in the February 1979 issue of Vogue. Shot in the California desert, the images capture the shadow of a helicopter that appears as a cross. “Fashion pictures are ephemeral. Some pictures have a great timelessness and draw the reader in but do not hold up as photographs. When you look at them ten years later, you’ve forgotten the fashion, and you see them more objectively.”

A turning point in his career occurred with the birth of his daughter Christine, “I found that to have babies and a stable family life doesn’t exclude bonheur and eroticism. As it turned out, it deepened certain experiences …To me, the baby is perfect and pure. The older one gets, the more imprisoned one becomes.” Von Wangenheim, however, would never have to cope with the confines of age: at the peak of his success von Wangenheim’s career was cut short by a fatal automobile accident in 1981.

After his death, much of von Wangenheim’s work was lost to posterity, “Magazines, such as Harper’s Bazaar, put no value in his work and discarded it,” explains Etheleen Staley of the Staley-Wise Gallery. “Photography wasn’t collected at this time. It was seen as transient and there was no such thing as hanging a picture on the wall.”

When asked about his legacy, Staley – whose gallery mounted an exhibition of von Wangenheim’s work in 1994 – says, “There’s a genre of fashion photographers who were drawn to the dark side and I think Guy Bourdin was the first one. Then there was Helmut and then Chris. Today we see the legacy of these individuals in the work of Ellen von Unwerth, Terry Richardson, and Steven Klein to an extent.” Von Wangenheim’s gift to those who came after was his willingness to shatter expectations and question boundaries, setting the stage for a new kind of fashion photography embodying a shared taste for controversy and stylisation.

by Lauren Weinberg

Images courtesy of Estate of Chris Von Wangenheim / Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery, New York.

From the Glass Archive – Issue Two – Rapture