CHRIS VON WANGENHEIM (1942 - 1981)
Chris von Wangenheim’s hard, sexy, and decadent images survive as among the most exemplary illustrations of the high-glamour look of the 1970s. Combining a dark world of sexuality, violence, and voyeurism in all their perverse implications, with an extreme visual elegance, he achieved a starling synthesis of glamour and terror which is unique to his work.
Von Wangenheim found his form early in the decade. His sensibility precisely matched the new fashion trends, whose most distinguished photographic exponents were Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. Born the son of an aristocratic German officer in Berlin in 1942, von Wangenheim infused his work with the strong influence of his German roots. His pictures, like those of his hero and mentor—and fellow Berliner—Helmut Newton, carry echoes of the decadent aspects of Weimar Berlin. There are references to German Expressionist cinema in his use of low lights that cast dramatic shadows, and there is a cool, even cruel edge to his scenarios that hints at an element of cultural and personal trauma.
Von Wangenheim’s father was a champion steeplechaser who won a gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, struggling to the finish after breaking his collarbone in a fall. His feat is depicted in Leni Riefenstahl’s famed documentary film of the Games, Olympia. Lieutenant von Wangenheim was captured in 1944 on the Russian front and committed suicide while still a prisoner in 1953. Chris von Wangenheim did not know his father, but the circumstances of the father’s life surely marked the son’s creative spirit. A feature for the June 1975 issue of Italian VOGUE casts the models as Olympic athletes. On other occasions horses were brought into the studio for a number of archetypal von Wangenheim images - arguably as surrogates for the absent male figure in his life. He described one image as “a symbolic family portrait.”
Von Wangenheim was drawn to photography from an early age, but he chose to study architecture. However, he went to New York in 1965 to learn photography as an assistant. By 1968 he had set up his own studio and had started to work for Harper’s Bazaar. In 1969 his photographs began appearing in the Italian and American editions of VOGUE. Von Wangenheim’s good looks, energy, ambition, and charm were in regular demand in New York and Europe for fashion and advertising work. His strong and memorable images were often composed with disconcerting ingredients: One for VOGUE featured an elegant foot in a high-heeled shoe kicking in a television screen; another, for Dior, showed a model with her arm locked in the jaws of a savage-looking dog.
In 1970’s New York he became closely enmeshed in a self-indulgent, hedonistic scene that gravitated around the parallel pursuits of style and thrills—the starstruck world of Studio 54 and Andy Warhol’s Interview. In the winter of 1975–76, the Rizzoli Gallery staged an exhibition titled “Fashion as Fantasy,” which caught the emerging characteristics of this glamour-obsessed moment, and it was inevitable that von Wangenheim should take part alongside artists as diverse as Richard Bernstein, Jim Dine, Rudi Gernreich, David Hockney, Karl Lagerfeld, Robert Motherwell, and the ubiquitous Warhol. Von Wangenheim photographed key icons in this milieu. He made dramatic portraits of such beauties and divas as Bianca Jagger, Grace Jones, and Diana Ross for Interview, and a striking cover and set of pictures of Raquel Welch for the December 1979 issue of Playboy. As the magazine explained, “His photos show the dangerous side of beauty.” The 1978 film Eyes of Laura Mars, a sinister New York story of fashion photography and murder, drew ideas from the work of a number of photographers, von Wangenheim foremost among them.
Von Wangenheim succeeded in constructing an illusory yet distinctive and persuasive world of brittle, dangerously seductive glamour. “A good fashion photograph,” he wrote in 1980, “makes a promise it can never keep.”
While at the peak of his success, von Wangenheim unexpectedly died at the age of 39 in March 1981.