“Trau dich doch”: I dare you. This provocative slogan, part of a late-1970s advertising campaign for the Austrian brand Palmers, appeared on posters featuring photos of models in seductive black lingerie—nothing short of scandalous at the time.
The photographs by Austrian photographer Elfie Semotan bear witness to a new, hedonistic zeitgeist that was gradually challenging conventions through playful experimentation. To this day, her photographs have lost none of their cool elegance, imperfect beauty, and discreetly erotic subtexts. They often reveal much more than the subject matter suggests, and their astute references to iconic works of art history blur the boundaries between art and commercial photography.
Semotan started her career as a photo model in Paris. She was introduced to photography in the late 1960s by her partner at the time, Canadian photographer John Cook, who sparked her passion for working behind the camera. The art of photographic storytelling became her forte: photos that have the look of film stills; visual compositions and figural arrangements that tell stories extending beyond what is shown. This principle led to her years-long advertising campaign for the Austrian mineral water company Römerquelle with photos depicting diverse variations of a ménage-à-trois. Her advertising photos and her portraits of prominent figures from the worlds of art, film, and theater—Louise Bourgeois, Willem Dafoe, Elfriede Jelinek, Milla Jovovich, Maria Lassnig, Martin Kippenberger, Udo Kier, Jonathan Meese, and Daniel Richter—and not least of all, her exclusive artistic collaboration and friendship with fashion designer Helmut Lang brought her international renown. Just as Lang’s minimalistic design had a defining influence on international fashion, Elfie Semotan’s libertine advertising and fashion photos for him as well as for international magazines like Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview, The New Yorker, and Vogue created a new photographic aesthetic.