Long-term resident, Vanessa von Zitzewitz is known for her spectacular black and white photographs in often unexpected settings. Gianni Agnelli, Pharell Williams, Carla Bruni, HSH Princess Charlene of Monaco or even Raphaël Nadal and Mick Jagger entrusted their image to the black and white look of Vanessa.
German photographer, Vanessa von Zitzewitz was born in Hamburg, however, at a young age, her parents moved to France and later to the Principality of Monaco. Since she left Germany at the age of two, Vanessa considers herself more of a Latin person than a German one.
“My father has been a Monaco resident for 50 years. And so when I was 18, I got my residency card too,” – remembers Vanessa.
Vanessa was educated at Parsons School of Design in Paris and the American Art University in New York. She always wanted to work as a graphic designer, but life held a different path for her.
“Photography was not my first choice, it came as a total coincidence. When I studied graphic design at Parsons School of Design in Paris, I had to take a photo class. I wasn’t very keen on taking that class but it was required to get the credits.”
After a few weeks, her teacher realised her hidden talent and convinced Vanessa to choose photography instead of graphic design.
“I remember that my teacher told me “You really have a good eye and your work is strong, and very graphic.” So if it is not for him then I would have chosen a different path.”
After finishing her studies, at the age of 21, Vanessa became a photographer and returned to the Principality where she set up her first office. She started to work and had her first big job as a commission for the jewellery company, Cartier.
“I started to work in Italy, then London, Berlin, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and New York. So for about five years, I was really mainly working for Cartier, photographing the most beautiful women of each country with Cartier jewellery in black and white. We also had exhibitions with these images and books,” – recalls Vanessa.
How does a 22-years-old girl get a dream job with one of the most renowned jewellery companies in the world?
“That’s a good question, I guess I was lucky,” – laughs Vanessa. – “They were looking for a young photographer and it started with a small budgeted idea in Paris to launch a bag called the Baby Bag. So there were young girls photographed by me, as a young photographer on a small budget. We had a big show in Paris and it was such a success that the branch in Italy asked me to do the same with girls in Rome, but this time they wanted to do it with jewellery.”
After staying in Rome, Italy for six months, Cartier London also approached Vanessa to replicate the successful campaign. Her photos started to appear all over the magazines and media campaigns.
“I remember that after this success, I was asked to create a book and exhibition in New York to celebrate Cartier’s 150th anniversary.
It was a memorable moment for me, as 5th Avenue was closed for the event, loaded with famous stars, press, and TV from all over the USA.”
Although Vanessa contributes her success to luck, it was hard work and talent as well which skyrocketed the young photographer to the fabulous stage of the elite league.
What was the most memorable photo shooting from this early period?
“I photographed Lisa Marie Presley, Elvis’s daughter in New York. I was very anxious about that shoot not just to get her for Cartier, but also because she had just divorced Michael Jackson. She was the person everybody wanted to photograph,” – remembers back Vanessa.
During that period, Vanessa was working on a book for Cartier New York, called “Untamed”, in which all the girls were photographed with wild animals. She decided to take Lisa Marie to a farm outside of New York where they rescued animals, and Vanessa photographed her there with an elephant.
“I will never forget this photo session because the whole production went crazy as Lisa Marie arrived from London with the Concord. We had to rent a dark glass bus so nobody could see her. We then ended up in the countryside with this incredible elephant.
Lisa Marie was wearing a beautiful evening gown with Cartier jewellery worth millions, and of course, everything seemed to go wrong. The elephant “of course” stepped on Lisa Marie’s dress and on top of this, it started to rain. I really mean it when I say that it was a crazy moment.”
In the end, a great picture came out, and Lisa Marie ended up on the cover of the book Vanessa photographed for Cartier.
Do you remember the first truly impactful photo session you did?
“My first photo session, which was a school assignment, had the subject of portraits. I was with my then-boyfriend in Sicily, Italy. I remember, we went to this very old market called La Boqueria in Palermo and I photographed old people at the market stands in the dark.
The result was amazing, pretty strong pictures came out from there. And after that series, my teacher told me I should switch to photography. So, I immediately noticed that I was good at capturing people and feelings,” – smiles Vanessa.
Was it different to make photographs back then since you could not see immediately the results?
“Yes, absolutely. Photography was not like today. We learned how to print and develop a film in a dark room. I ended up doing a little dark room in my apartment, which was great at the time,” – giggles Vanessa.
“It was just so different from today. As I’m talking to you now I have a feeling I’m a grandmother although it’s not that long ago and yet, the world was so different.”
Do you think it is easier and more convenient to make great photos with mobile phones?
“Everybody thinks, “oh I have an iPhone, I can do a picture, put it on my computer and play around, and I’m creating art”. And that’s what I’m really against because art is like any craftsmanship.
Art is not about applying quick filters. It is similar to learning how to work with wood, stone or make jewellery. I spent years and learned the process in detail, as photography is not just taking snapshots and playing around with them. It’s something much more serious.”
So you are not impressed by the Instagram generation?
“I sometimes laugh when I go on Instagram because every third girl seems to be a photographer on her page. I would like to give them a real camera with film as a challenge, and ask them to do a picture to then see if they are photographers. It’s not that easy, I believe our society is going too fast in the wrong direction.
I’m a very classical person. I think it’s good to come back to basics and elegancy and tradition, and also to learn from our senior idols. I could look every day at books of Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, or Irving Penn. They are real masters in photography. I don’t know of any famous photographers nowadays. It’s very sad because the amazing photographers are passing away, or have passed away. Peter Lindberg died not long ago too. Where are the newcomers? I don’t know.”
What do you think about the art fairs and their photography selections?
“When you go through Paris photo, it’s not about photography anymore. It’s about snapshots that are overdrawn with colours and that are turned into some kind of art. Most of them are very aggressive pictures with sexual connotations.
Today, people think that through shocking images they can become famous. I might be old-fashioned, some people could say, or too classical, but I think the masterpieces in photography are the elegant and refined works. You close your eyes and immediately see the images as they are engraved in your mind forever, due to their strengh and originality. When I think of Hamilton Newton’s work, whom I had the great honour to know as a young photographer, I see precise images that are engraved forever in my mind.”
Do you think nowadays art has to be shocking and provocative?
“Absolutely not. I still believe in aesthetics and views. Just imagine, what type of art would you put on your wall in your living room?
It is a sad reality that the media is full of violence, TV series, and movies are all about murder and guns, and how people die in accidents and through diseases. This is part of life but our society is driven by these violent images.
I believe in aesthetics and beauty, but unfortunately, I do not see that a lot today.”
What makes you think that a photograph is impactful or beautiful? What should the artwork capture?
“For me, photography has to be black and white. It has to give you serenity, and go back to something that the world is lacking today, elegance and beauty. And that makes a strong image. It shouldn’t be aggressive or vulgar, just something that makes you dream.”
As a photographer, Vanessa also touched on very sensitive subjects to create awareness and social impact.
One of these was her book, called “Slaughterhouse Angels”. She spent two years in Bangkok, Thailand photographing children of a local orphanage from 2005 to 2006.
“It was a truly impactful project. In the end, we had a big exhibition of the pictures and the book helped to raise $400,000 for the orphanage. They received the entire proceeds of the book.”
How did you decide to go to Thailand and make this project?
“My father told me about the place because he was helping financially the orphanage through the Human Development Foundation. I immediately thought I want to go there. I packed my bags in November and stayed there a month on my own.
When you come from Monaco and end up there in the slums of Bangkok, it’s very tough, very emotional.”
The project was a very challenging and yet eye-opening experience for Vanessa because at the time, the children were still dying of AIDS. Vanessa built up strong bonds with a lot of children there.
She organised many events for the children and took them out on boat trips and cinemas. However, she also saw many little girls and boys pass away during these years of attending the orphanage and working on the book project.
Vanessa is also a passionate animal lover. She started horseback riding at the age of 28 and became obsessed with horses. She also owns two horses just 40 minutes away from the Principality of Monaco.
“I ride and train every day. Every morning I ride my two horses and then I come back for lunch, and only then do I start my work. They’re mystical for me.
People who don’t know horses are usually scared of them because they’re very big and impulsive, especially the show jumping horses because they’re not country horses that are just tamed like cows.
They can be quite aggressive and dangerous. But the adrenaline when you ride a horse and gallop and jump is just fabulous. So I became completely hooked on riding horses.”
You have also published an art book that pays tribute to the grace and magic of horses, called the “Horses of Qatar”.
“Yes, the Emir of Qatar’s office asked me to come to Doha to do portraits of the royal family. Once we finished the photography session, I had one extra day left.
Since I had heard about the incredible horses that the Emir has, as a passionate horse lover, I asked his office if they could arrange for me to go and see the place. I was fortunate enough to go there and did some snapshots that day.”
The next day, Vanessa showed the pictures to the Emir and told him that he has the most beautiful Arabian horses in the world and that they should try to show them to everybody. The Emir loved the idea and Vanessa ended up photographing for the book called Horses of Qatar.
“To complete the project it took me two years. I flew to Doha 17 times and made over 23,000 pictures. In the end, we selected about 300 pictures for that big book. And I had the fabulous honour to present the book with an exhibition at the Petit Palais Museum in Paris, France.”
The time she invested into the photographs paid off, as the book is one of the most beautiful books ever produced on horses.
“My projects are very intense and I try to go as far as possible. I can say that I live the world of the subject that I’m photographing. I slept nights in the stables to photograph the birth of a foal.
I was under water to capture the horses during their daily routine, photographed them for hours when they were let free in the paddoks, in the desert, at night, tried to capture intimate moments that the public eye rarely sees. Doing all this in 48 degrees heat and 80% humidity outside. I really lived with them, and this is also what I like to do as a photographer, it’s always very intense,” – says Vanessa.
The Horses of Qatar book project was pushed to its climax in the inimitable series “Underwater”. Was it challenging to shoot the horses in water?
“This was the most memorable photo of my career. It was quite difficult to get it organised because technically it was a difficult picture. It was a big challenge to bring the camera under the water, especially the lights.
The horses would stay only for a couple of minutes in the water. Then they got too tired and had to go out. So I had to really be prepared to shoot my pictures at the right distance. And then you had other problems and challenges,” – Vanessa starts to laugh.
What kind of problems?
“I love the water and love to swim. To be under the water with the horse and photograph my favourite animal was just surreal. I was staying more time underwater and was getting closer to the horse because of the adrenaline and excitement.
I remember suddenly my assistant pulled the flash cable and I went out and asked, “What’s going on?” He says, “Do you want to die today?” I was getting so close to the horse that with the distortion of the water I did not realise that the foot of the horse was just centimetres away from my head. Overall it was like being in another world. It was very special.”
Vanessa’s secret inspirations are animals. She loves to work with every type of animal.
“I love snakes too. I think they’re fabulous. Most people have this wrong image thinking that snakes are cold and wet, whereas they’re warm and dry. I think we can learn so much from animals. I’ve worked with a lot of wild animals throughout my career, and I never get enough. I think you just come back to your basics when you get in touch with them because their world is still where they have their principles and instincts.”
20 years ago, Vanessa had an amazing idea related to the Principality of Monaco. At that time, there were a lot of interesting and famous people living in Monaco and she talked about a potential project with Prince Albert.
Her vision was to do a charity project for the Red Cross. The book “Monachrome”, which was born from this vision, featured not only the celebrities but also the hard-working intellectual people of Monaco.
One of these photos was of the famous heart sergeant Professor Dor, who also operated HSH Prince Rainier II.
“I absolutely wanted to photograph him for my book but at the same time, I did not want to do it in a portrait style. As we were sitting in his office he said to me, “Well we’re just in time. Get changed as I have a heart transplant now. You come with me!” So, I ended up dressed up for the surgery, they disinfected my camera and everything else, and I ended up with him in the surgery room.
They opened up the chest of the patient and I was there doing his portrait during the heart transplant. As you can imagine it was a pretty impressive photo shoot.”
This is just one of the many examples from Vanessa’s book of how she managed to show the great variety of people living here – not only Formula One drivers and top models, but also incredibly dedicated and inspiring people.
The book contains black and white, monochrome photos, and she decided to call it Monachrome, after Monaco.
The cover of the book features a nude photo of Carla Bruni. This picture became very famous when Carla became Mrs. Sarkozy, the wife of the French president, and everybody got their book out again and had the First Lady naked on their coffee table.
Vanessa also did a spectacular black and white series on the Principality of Monaco. These photos were recently exhibited at the local restaurant, Cipriani.
What was your motivation behind this series?
“I love Monaco and I think many people only see the cliche pictures of it with the Casino, the red Ferrari, the Chanel bag, blah, blah, blah.
Very often, when I travel and sit at a dinner table in Paris, London, or New York, and Monaco comes into the conversation, it is shocking how often people label it as boring.
I wanted to change this preconception because many people don’t realise how lucky and also how privileged we are in today’s world to have so many amazing things that surround us here. We have the weather, the security and access to a fabulous airport that’s 20 minutes away. We can drive to Milan in three hours and can go to the mountains as well. I mean, this place is just phenomenal. It’s a growing place, just like a small New York.”
In your photo series, you showcase a lot of concrete areas instead of landmarks. Why is that?
“Through my work, I wanted to show the very different aspects of Monaco. Yes, there’s a lot of concrete. That’s why this series is called Stunning Concrete. The Principality is full of concrete but at the same time, it’s such a stunning place. It’s so full of surprises.”
You also created a photo series for HSH Princess Charlene. How did this co-operation come?
“It was a great honour. I’ve known Prince Albert since I was a young person. I had photographed him once along with his sister HSH Princess Stephanie.
The idea came up when they called me from the Palace and asked if I would like to do a series of portraits of Her Serene Highness. They wanted intimate portraits which Her Serene Highness had never done before and actually hasn’t done ever since.”
Thrilled by the request and honour, Vanessa managed a two-day photo session with Her Serene Highness and photographed her in the water, at the palace, and outside of it.
“It was a very complex and successful one. I had many covers with that photo session for Paris Match, Hola magazine, and many others. I’m very proud of it,” – smiles Vanessa.
Was it difficult to work with Her Serene Highness?
“Her Serene Highness was fabulous during the photo sessions because I think as she was a swimmer, she’s a very disciplined person. I also had a really good team for the dresses, hair make-up and styling, and it all just worked out really well.
She accepted everything that I had imagined and the result speaks for itself. I am looking forward to another session like that with her,” – remembers Vanessa.
Do you normally have total artistic freedom in your projects?
“Most of the time, yes. And this is also the reason that I do not want to do any more commercial campaigns. I prefer not to work for big groups because they have agencies and art directors.”
But you did a campaign for Graff diamonds as well.
“I was asked by Lawrence Graff himself as he needed a book for his clients. He offered me complete artistic freedom, I could do more or less what I wanted.
I introduced him the model I liked and presented him the concept. He gave me his ok and we also chose the jewellery together at his London office.
It was magical to see the fabulous stones I was to to capture, all lying on an immense table together.
He gave me eight months to create the Christmas book of Graff.”
Was it easy to make a photoshoot in the public with such high-value diamonds?
“I remember some pictures done here in Monaco where we had 20 million Euro worth of jewellery held in plastic bags. We went to the Beach Club and the girl came out of the water wet with the diamond necklaces and earrings,” – starts Vanessa. – “This is impossible today, with the insurance policies and security problems linked also to social media and people around you taking pictures.
At the time, it wasn’t like that at all. It was much easier, more fun. I think, as a photographer, you had more freedom at that time.”
Did you ever have a client where you decided that you just want to quit?
“Almost. There was a photoshooting with a very famous American actor, where I was very close to quitting. I was in my 30’s and being a blonde photographer sometimes created unpleasant situations for me, when famous men tried to cross limits they should have not.
Back then, there were no #metoo campaigns. Thank God, I’m a very strong person and I can put my foot down. I almost quit but then I turned it around and managed to do the portrait. But there were other times when it was not that comfortable being a woman.”
Do you think this has changed over the years?
“Yes, definitely. I think men are more scared today than 10-15 years ago. At the end of the day, it always comes to you saying no.”
Talking about modern society and ideals, Vanessa is strictly against all the filters that people use on social media. She believes using filers is not about capturing the beauty, it’s just to create something ideal and accepted.
“For me, some of the social media photos are quite scary. Filters will cause a lot of psychological damage to many young girls using them because they’re going to wake up one morning and realise they’re not what they are on their Instagram accounts. I remember at one point, everybody was criticising that models were too thin. It was a big thing for all the big fashion designers. Everyone talked about how they should weigh their models and not accept if they’re too skinny. But look what’s going on today.
Nobody says anything about these Instagram images of 50-year-old women who look like they’re 18, or young girls who are 12 and look like they’re 18 and are in extremely provocative poses. I think it feeds sexual predators, as they don’t even need to go to pornographic websites. They just need to go to Instagram to see some of these girls. It is quite scary.”
Do you believe as a photographer, that everyone can be captured as a beautiful person without any added filters?
“In a way, yes. That’s what I’m doing for 30 years. That’s my task and that’s what I’m good at. And that’s the magic of being a good photographer. Everybody can look great in a different way.”
What would your advice be for a young photographer? For someone who is starting to be a photographer today, purchasing their first camera.
“Definitely do the opposite of what you see in the media today. Try to work hard and try to find what’s inside yourself and what you like. And don’t feel obliged to do something that society likes, you should stay away from society’s fantasy. Try to find the beauty within every person without using retouching.”
Frieze Masters, Paris Photo, Fotographiska, Art Basel, South Hampton, and Miami Art Fair are some of the many famous fairs and galleries that represent Vanessa’s works around the world. She has also exhibited solo in Paris, Monaco, Brussels, Turin, Milan, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, London, NYC, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.
With such a huge life experience and world of inspirations, Vanessa lives here in the heart of the Principality of Monaco working on two new projects which we will all be able to discover soon.