Spotlight on: Chris Von Wangenheim
Chris Von Wangenheim Doberman Vogue February 1977

Spotlight on: Chris Von Wangenheim

Words by Georgia Gordon

Cult fashion photographer Chris Von Wangenheim’s work epitomised the excess and high octane glamour of the 1970s. His work had an instantly recognisable aesthetic; it was cinematic and impactful, featuring models with the glossy, high cheekbones and big hair that typified the era. Alongside his contemporaries Guy Bourdin and Helmut newton, his work marked a shift towards a style of fashion photography that was risqué and had a darker and more subversive tone. 


Chris Von Wangenheim for Krizia 1979 modelled by Lisa Vale

Von Wangenheim was born to German parents in 1942. His father was an officer in the German army and died while a prisoner of war in 1953. His exposure to Nazism and his father’s suicide would later inform the dark tone of his work. After studying architecture, Von Wangenheim switched paths and moved to New York to pursue photography. Initially he worked as an assistant to David Thorpe and James Moore. In the 1970s he was hired by the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar and later the Italian Edition. He shot iconic campaigns for the likes of Dior and Valentino and his images were featured in the likes of Interview, Esquire, Playboy and Vogue. At the time, he was as well-known as his contemporaries Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton, who were known within the fashion world as the “terrible three”. 


Gia Carangi and Juli Foster by Chris Von Wangenheim


Undercurrents of sex and violence were prevalent within Von Wangenheim's work, which reflected the cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s.  During this period urban crime in New York was at an all-time high. Violence had also seeped into popular culture, as seen in gritty films of the era such as Taxi Driver. According to Von Wangenheim, “The violence is in the culture, why shouldn’t it be in the pictures”. The sexual revolution and the de-stigmatisation of pornography also influenced the provocative nature of his work.  Von Wangenheim's photographs were published in Playboy and he was dubbed the "King of Porno Chic.  Contrastingly, in the same era, Von Wangenheim also shot campaigns for high-end designers such as Valentino and Dior.  These images featured the "shock factor" Von Wangenheim's work was most known for.  His most iconic images are arguably his 1976 campaign for Dior, where he shot Patti Hansen standing in front of a burning car, draped in mink, and his 'Snap' editorial for Vogue US featuring Christy Brinkley being bitten on the arm by a Doberman.


Lisa Taylor by Chris Von Wangenheim


Sadly, Von Wangenheim’s reign was brief, and he died tragically at the age of 39 in a car accident whilst on holiday in Saint Martin. In the year leading to his death, his issues with drugs progressively worsened and he began losing clients. Before he died, he was in the midst of a divorce from Regine Jaffry, a model with whom he had a daughter. As a result of his untimely death, Von Wangenheim’s work went largely under the radar for some time.  Although the legacies of his contemporaries Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton remain better known for now, it is clear that Von Wangenheim’s photographs had an indelible influence on contemporary fashion photography.  His work has had a marked influence on the likes of photographers such as Steven Klein and Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott and his images are emblematic of fashion photography of his era.  


Grace Jones with leopard by Chris Von Wangenheim 1977
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September 15, 2021 — Georgia Gordon