Photographer Interviews

What Paul Costello Learned Assisting Ellen von Unwerth

November 29, 2016

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Ellen von Unwerth

“TATJANA, Paris,” 1992, from Ellen von Unwerth’s book Fräulein. While working as an assistant for von Unwerth, Paul Costello admired her drive to push every shoot as far as possible.

In our story about photographers who have landed assignments by helping clients conceive images for their advertising, Paul Costello explains that he keeps coming up with ideas for additional images during the shoot. Costello says that when he’s working to create multiple variations and new scenarios, he sometimes recalls his time as a photo assistant in New York City in the mid-1990s, when he got to see fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth in action. Her work ethic “made a huge impact on me,” Costello notes.

“The energy and tenacity she had to keep making pictures and keep trying was amazing to watch.” When he launched his own career, he says, he found that he adopted von Unwerth’s working style: “If you have an idea, do it. If you can get more, get more.”   

As a second assistant, however, Costello sometimes found a day on von Unwerth’s crew “endless,” he says. “You’d never be done. You’d start at sunrise, then you’d think as sunset would be creeping up: This must be the last shot. Then she’d say, ‘You know it would be great if you put on this outfit, and we got it under this street light,’ and then you’d be shooting for another three hours.” By the mid-1990s, von Unwerth was already famous for her work on the Guess campaign, and was regularly shooting for clients such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, Dior and Victoria Secret. Still, she continued to experiment constantly. The provocative imagery she produces, both on assignment and in her personal projects, has been collected in numerous books, including Fräulein, Heimat and The Story of Olga (published by Taschen). “You got the idea she was very inspired,” Costello recalls, “from the moment she started until no one could do another thing and they’d unloaded the truck with every single thing she could play with.”

Costello says von Unwerth’s enthusiasm spread to the models, the clients and also the crew, “because it was fun, energetic picture making.”

As a photographer, Costello sees practical benefits in going far beyond the shot list and getting more images. He says, “The last thing you want when you’re looking through your film is to wish you’d tried something you didn’t try.”

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Photographs by Ellen von Unwerth (via PDN Photo of the Day)

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