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Arts: Barbie see, Barbie do

First those Wonderbra ads, now sexual fantasy: yet Ellen von Unwerth is a model photographer. By Jane Richards
So, girls, when is the proper time to take one last look at your Barbie doll before casting her aside in the serious business of growing up? For the German photographer Ellen von Unwerth that time need never come. "My work is all about playing Barbie doll," she enthuses. "It's about taking a woman and changing her into something different."

Von Unwerth's image of Claudia Schiffer, coiffed and made up to resemble the Barbie doll she clasps to her chest, is the ultimate example, but the effect is splashed all over her new show, "When Children Should Be in Bed", a tongue-in-cheek orgy of beautiful people (mostly women, but with a few token men) indulging in a variety of sexual fantasies. A skin- tight leather skirt reveals a flash of buttocks; a blonde lounges on a leopard skin as if for a Seventies Playboy spread; a pair of nurses, one with a stethoscope, the other with her shirt open to reveal her bra; a woman languishes upon a cross; another woman binds a man with masking tape. Then there's a little girl parading in front of a wardrobe mirror, naked but for a pair of her mother's high heels.

The theme of the show was inspired by Von Unwerth's six-year-old daughter. "I was looking through my old pictures for ideas, when I came across one of Rebecca peeping out from a huge Tiffany box. I thought it would be fun to imagine her eyes widening at this night-time activity that she shouldn't be seeing."

Too right she shouldn't be seeing it, but she can't fail to see her mother's best-known work. It dominates billboards and magazines all over the world. Think Coco Chanel and Chanel No 5 and Prada. Hers too are the recent Adidas sportswomen ads - where Steffi Graf is given the same smokey, heavy-lidded make-up treatment as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss.

But the ones you'll know for sure are the "Hello boys!" Wonderbra ads. They caused quite a rumpus for their depiction of women as sex-objects. And it was interesting to watch how people changed their response when told that a woman was responsible for the images.

But does that make a picture of a woman thrusting her tits at the camera any more palatable today? "I'm just trying to make beautiful pictures," insists Von Unwerth. "I don't see my works as exploitative. They're just cheeky, they're fun, and the models aren't complaining." And with the likes of Madonna, Demi Moore and Kim Basinger lining up to be snapped, she can't be far wrong.

Von Unwerth now lives in New York and works all over the world. The story of her life is the stuff of fairy-tales. Born in Germany in the mid-Fifties, she was orphaned at two and brought up in a series of foster homes. She went to boarding school, then left to join a hippie commune in Munich, then a circus - as an assistant to the clown and the knife-thrower.

She was a model for 10 years, until her then boyfriend gave her a Nikon camera as a present. "But I'd always had an input into printing process," she explains, "because I insisted on controlling the pictures my boyfriend took of me." The first photographs she took were of fellow models on a Kenyan shoot for the German magazine Jill. The designer Katharine Hamnett saw the work and chose Von Unwerth to photograph her first campaign, a choice the photographer sees as "brave". "After all," she admits, "everyone was saying, `Ellen took these pictures? But she's stupid.'"

Von Unwerth (whose name, ironically, translates as "of no worth") is not the only model to switch to the other side of the camera. Clare Park, a ballet dancer turned model, now uses her photography to examine her experience of anorexia, while Koo Stark and Pamela Bordes offer further evidence that women on the receiving end of the paparazzi treatment often want to take control at some stage. But Von Unwerth, for whom the transition meant "the end of worrying about wrinkles", agrees that her experiences as a model helped. "I know how I used to feel under the spotlight - how bad I felt about having to sit still for hours. I get my models to move around, play and have fun. OK, I'll sometimes pose a shot, but you can bet I'll usually end up selecting the shot where the model scratched her nose."

n `When Children Should Be in Bed' is at Hamilton's Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, London W1 (0171-499 9493)