The Forgotten Idol

Feature on photographer Chris von Wangenheim
ZOO Magazine #48, 2015

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You may not know his name, but you’ve most certainly come across his work in the form of striking anonymous images, or through the oeuvre of famous contemporary fashion photographers who still look at his style and spirit for inspiration. German photographer Chris von Wangenheim (1942—1981) may have died prematurely more than thirty years ago at the age of 39, but his influence can still be felt today in fashion editorials and advertising. With the release this year of the first complete monograph dedicated to his work, Gloss, Rizzoli Publications sets von Wangenheim’s name back on the map. This is only fitting for a photographer who unduly fell into domestic oblivion while his vision is watermarked on postmodern culture. As a young man von Wangenheim left Europe to work as a photographer’s assistant in New York. The year was 1965, and it didn’t take long before he opened his own studio and started shooting for the illustrious fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Soon other prominent publications such as Vogue and Esquire followed, while von Wangenheim also did advertising campaigns for top brands such as Christian Dior, Revlon, and Helena Rubinstein. The cover of the book Gloss features an iconic picture from his 1976 Fetching Is Your Dior advertising campaign for Dior in which the model’s fragile-looking wrist is held between the jaws of a Doberman as if it were a living, and possibly fatal, bracelet. These types of images ensured that von Wangenheim quickly became a key figure in the fashion world of the 1970s.

This was a revolutionary decade for the industry. Fashion photography was redefining itself as a narrative medium that increasingly focused on the story the image told rather than on the mere promotion of clothes and accessories. That narrative was often erotically loaded as the sexual revolution surged and pornography entered its golden age in the United States with the success of now cult films such as Deep Throat. As sexually explicit content seeped into mainstream culture, fashion photographers embraced the trend and incorporated erotic themes into their work. Helmut Newton, von Wangenheim’s elder compatriot and mentor, portrayed women in overtly sadomasochistic scenarios, an inclination towards the morbid also displayed by other pioneers in the field at the time such as Guy Bourdin. Von Wangenheim’s fantasies fell in line with the glamorization of violence that increasingly characterized mainstream culture. Von Wangenheim’s work challenged the norms in other regards though. Many of his photographs hint at sexual and cultural taboos, including bestiality and incest. In the 1970 series for Vogue Italia, he depicts a young and elegant mother holding her son — a tad too closely perhaps — while a nun observes the scene. In another series featuring models and horses, he depicts a model lying on the floor while the animal plunges its head between her open legs.

Von Wangenheim was a born provocateur, who saw the commercial potential of shock — a tactic that had played a part in the history of modern art and that also became a prominent feature of postmodern art epitomized by the phenomenon of the Young British Artists supported by advertising mogul Charles Saatchi in the 1990s. Today, fashion photographers are more eager than ever to shock potential consumers into paying attention to their images — and hence the brand they promote — in an oversaturated media environment. The contested perfume ads of Tom Ford are a good example. Von Wangenheim’s work blurred the boundaries between high art and photography in a manner that had become customary since the rise of Pop Art in the 1960s and the work of Andy Warhol, for whose music magazine, Interview, he worked. At the glamorous Studio 54 in New York, he joined the famous and the rich, and launched the first supermodel, Gia Carangi, who tragically died of AIDS in 1986, and after whom Cindy Crawford —“little Gia” — was once nicknamed. Von Wangenheim played a pivotal role in shaping postmodern culture with its supermodels, its consumption fostered by provocation, and its photography turned into art. The monograph Gloss is perhaps the best homage to this pioneering work. Not only does it finally put a name to many striking pictures that have been relegated to our anonymized collective imaginary, it also helps create the image of the international star von Wangenheim surely would have become had he not tragically perished in a car accident at the peak of his career. Today, partly as a result of his work, success and fame are dependent on the right cocktail of sex, violence, and rock and roll.