The gloss and grit of the man who shot the ’70s

Why Chris von Wangenheim’s images are more relevant than ever.

Chris von Wangenheim Gloss book cover
Glossy tome The book celebrating the work of Chris von Wangenheim is just like his photographs... it contains plenty of bite.

Seventies New York was soundtracked by Chic and Blondie, snowed in cocaine and steeped in pre-AIDS promiscuity – all while the city careened into bankruptcy and crime, and a generation mourned the death of ’60s idealism.

At the epicentre of the Studio 54 mayhem was Chris von Wangenheim. If you were deemed glamorous enough to be permitted entry to the club, or your name was Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol or Grace Jones, you were shot by the photographer.

In the ’70s, German-born von Wangenheim was, along with Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, known as one of ‘The Terrible Three’.

“The best things in life begin with C: champagne, caviar, cash and cocaine”

But after aristocratic von Wangenheim died in a car crash in 1981 aged 39 he was overshadowed by Newton, Bourdin and then David Bailey. Yet of the ‘Terrible Three’, von Wangenheim’s images of women were the most extreme. He had a penchant for taking oiled-up, puffy-haired, fur-clad models and photographing them chained up, gettting tattooed, being bitten by menacing dobermans and being licked by horses between their spread legs.

One of his shots had American model Patti Hansen (Keith Richards’ wife) drenched in milk with a car ablaze in the background. One of his advertising shots involved a bloodied bra and a gun – and later there was the lesbianism and needles in his portraits.

Chris von Wangenheim: the man who shot the Seventies
Armed with a camera and dangerous Chris von Wangenheim was 39 when he died in a car crash, ending a life walked on the wild side.

Von Wangenheim’s mission was to reflect the female liberation of the ’70s, but blend it with the darkness of the Big Apple’s crime and corruption. He worked in the days of New York grime portrayed in Taxi Driver, in which Travis Bickle’s fixation with ridding the streets of the “scum, junkies and skunk pussies” would have been totally understandable to the city’s residents.

The definitive book of the photographer’s work, Gloss: The Work Of Chris von Wangenheim, has been published to celebrate his decadent style. Designer Marc Jacobs backed it by holding the launch party for the book, and here we present a dissection of von Wangenheim’s calling card images. 

Von Wangenheim’s renaissance has a lot to do with the days in which we are living.

Just as the backdrop to von Wangenheim’s image was glamour, crime and corruption, we have superficial celebrity and pornography pumped into homes to dumb down nations and distract from the horrors of terrorism, government corruption and global financial meltdowns.




Girls With Horse

Chris von Wangenheim Girls With Horse photograph from his Gloss book
Neigh bother Fashion assistants hated that von Wangenheim insisted on shooting with animals as couture garments often got wrecked by the beasts.

Horses are heavily fetishised in von Wangenheim’s photography – not only because he loved the sensationalist mischief of including hints of bestiality in high-fashion shoots.

There’s also a very personal reason behind his fixation on putting a filly in focus. Von Wangenheim’s father Konrad, a German Army captain, won a gold medal in equestrianism at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Konrad was captured by the Soviets in 1944 when von Wangenheim was three, and remained imprisoned until long after World War II ended. In 1953, a week before he was finally due to be released, Konrad committed suicide.

Although von Wangenheim didn’t inherit his father’s horse-riding ability, this 1975 photo was typical of his equine homages. Another shows a horse nuzzling between the legs of a brave model.


Tied Up

Chris von Wangenheim Tied Up photograph from his Gloss book
Knot shy Von Wangenheim delighted in not shooting many clothes for fashion shoots. He preferred spikes, heels and chains as alternative props.

Von Wangenheim was heavily influenced by the dark glam of 1920s Germany and Bob Fosse’s 1972 film Cabaret. The photographer arrived in New York at a time when the city was getting bleak. Its local government was on the verge of bankruptcy that peaked in an incident in 1977 when there was a 25-hour power blackout in the middle of a heatwave.

To distract themselves, and with cocaine suddenly flooding in, the city’s residents were desperate to get off and get on one. This attitude, and so much more, is captured in images such as Tied Up, taken in 1978. Von Wangenheim told Time magazine in 1977, “Violence is in the culture – so why shouldn’t it be in pictures?”


Regine & Angeleen

Chris von Wangenheim Regine And Angeleen photograph from his Gloss book
Porno chic Critics dubbed von Wangenheim the ’king of porno chic’ but he felt capturing women in the nude gave them professional and sexual liberation. The model on the left was his wife.

A lesson in how to get your wife to cop off with another woman while you watch. The model on the left is Regine Jaffry, who von Wangenheim met in 1971 when she was hired by Revlon for one of his advertising shoots. They married the following year and had a daughter, Christine.

On the right is Angeleen Gagliano, who dated another photographer, Bob Anderson. Gagliano was a trained horse rider and posed in several of von Wangenheim’s other horsey photographs.


Bianca Jagger

Chris von Wangenheim Bianca Jagger photograph from his Gloss book
Horseplay As a Studio 54 regular Bianca Jagger epitomised the dark-edged glamour von Wangenheim spent his life capturing.

Mick Jagger’s wife Bianca was the epitome of Studio 54 style. She attended the club’s opening night in April 1977. A week later, Bianca rode into the club on horseback, which must have been von Wangenheim’s ultimate fantasy.

Or so everyone thought. In April this year, Jagger said she only rode the horse once she was already inside the club.

“I made the foolish decision to get on it for a few minutes,” she said. “As an animal rights defender, I find the insinuation that I would ride a horse into a nightclub offensive.”

Jagger may now be intent on injecting boredom into the tales of legend on which Studio 54 was built. Action film godfather Joel Schumacher isn’t one who wishes to demythologise the club, or its debauched reputation. He recalled about the nightspot, “There wasn’t a lot of information about drugs at the time. People were pounding lines of cocaine in front of everyone.”

No-one indulged harder than von Wangenheim, who said, “The best things in life begin with the letter C: champagne, caviar, cash, cocaine.”


Gia Carangi

Chris von Wangenheim Gia Carangi photograph from his Gloss book
Wild beauty One of history’s craziest models and von Wangenheim’s most persistent muse Gia Carangi, in a rare clothed shot. Eight years after this shot was taken she was dead of AIDS.

One of von Wangenheim’s more restrained snaps (aside from the blush of nipple) features one of history’s wildest models, and the snapper’s most enduring muse.

Gia Carangi was the world’s first supermodel and, although she looks years older, was aged 18 when this image was taken. Eight years after it was taken she was dead of AIDS-related complications.

Carangi preferred the grit of New York punk club CBGB over the gloss of Studio 54, and she’s universally hailed as the world’s original supermodel.

In the early 1980s she sank into heroin addiction and when track marks started to become visible in Carangi’s shoots (one of which was for Vogue) her work offers started to dry up.

Carangi ended up working in the café of a nursing home before dying of Aids in 1986. Her life was dramatised by one of Hollywood’s wildest actresses, Angelina Jolie, who played Carangi in the 1998 HBO drama Gia. Von Wangenheim said she was the perfect clotheshorse, adding, “Fashion photography is a way to sell clothes, and the way to sell clothes is through seduction.”


Gia Gets Tattooed

Chris von Wangenheim Gia Gets Tattooed photograph from his Gloss book
Agony and ecstasy Von Wangenheim’s major artistic obsessions – sex, pain, torture, submission and art – came together in this shot.

One of von Wangenheim’s final classic images, this is Carangi getting tattooed in 1980.

A leather-clad tattooist inflicting close-up pain while appearing to take a model from behind was vintage von Wangenheim but, by then, he was getting bored of his career choices.

His marriage to model Regine Jaffry was over, and he said he wanted to move away from bondage imagery. By the time of von Wangenheim’s death his new girlfriend Christine Starfield said he had shunned the party lifestyle and was studying Buddhism.

On his death, Jaffry inherited the rights to von Wangenheim’s photos. She had quit modelling and shunned the fashion industry, allowing her late husband’s work to become forgotten.

Gloss, written with Jaffry’s cooperation, gloriously opens up his work again.

“He was driven,” says Jaffry in the book. “He ate, slept and shat photography.”

Gloss: The Work Of Chris von Wangenheim by Roger Padilha and Mauricio Padilha is published by Rizzoli priced £60.

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