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Vanessa von Zitzewitz, the photographer who captured Michael Schumacher and Princess Charlene

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Prince Albert II attended the opening of the exhibition devoted to the work of Vanessa von Zitzewitz (right), in the Sotheby's gallery, managed by Louise Gréther (left) - All rights reserved

Vanessa von Zitzewitz, who lives in the Principality, recently exhibited her photos of the German racing driver at Sotheby’s Monaco. We profile a photographer who has always pursued her art with passion and intensity.

“That look, so focused and deep… The exhibition started out with this photo.” The walls of Monaco’s prestigious Sotheby’s gallery, were recently adorned with 28 black and white photographs of  the famous racing driver Michael Schumacher. Behind the lens, German photographer Vanessa von Zitzewitz gave us a private tour, sharing anecdotes and comments.

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Because there is a story behind each picture. “This photo is very graphic, you can’t see the man, he’s almost like a machine.. I really like this one. I called it ‘Bye Bye Barcelona’, there’s almost  a Flamenco feel to it, with that hand… This one is incredible, because wherever you stand, Michael’s gaze follows you… This one, with the old-fashioned telephone, is where it all began. Nothing is cropped out: we think about framing up front… I love this one because it was taken in Monaco. Schumacher is standing like a sculpture, like a rock. That’s him. That’s really him,” she says, her eyes glistening.

And all this work, Vanessa states, is not just in honour of the driver. “Through this exhibition, we have paid tribute to a person, an iconic figure for us. But we also paid tribute to all those years when I had the  good fortune to be able to meet him and photograph him with very exclusive access. For example, the photo of the mechanics refuelling and changing tyres during the race. I shot that with a 50mm lens. I was there, in between the mechanics. There was no enlargement and no zoom. I was inside the madness,  the noise, the commotion… You wouldn’t be able to do that today”, she says.

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The photographer was able to get as close as possible to the pilot, in among the mechanics – © Vanessa von Zitzewitz

And it’s the adrenalin that stimulates Vanessa in her work and enables her to produce unique shots!

“I had the extraordinary good fortune of photographing Professor Dor, who was working at the Principality’s Cardio-Thoracic Centre at the time. He was THE big shot among the professors, and I was to photograph him for a book about Monaco. Rather than in his office, I wanted to photograph him in an operating theatre. He said: “You know what?  That’s perfect. I’ve got a heart transplant in half an hour, so come with me! “Next thing I’m being disinfected and gowned, with the doctors sawing through the thorax, using the retractors, the whole bit! I’ve always gone full throttle into my photo shoots and that’s what still drives me today. I don’t just want to take photographs, standing behind my camera. I want to enter the person’s world,” she says.

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Professor Dor mid-surgery at Monaco’s Cardio-Thoracic Centre – © Vanessa von Zitzewitz

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From Lisa Presley to Princess Charlene

Right from the start of her career, Vanessa von Zitzewitz was able to ‘shoot’ a substantial number of celebrities. From Mick Jagger to Pavarotti, by way of Lisa Presley, when she was only 22. It was one shoot after another for Vanessa.  “It’s incredible, and at the same time, it’s a stress that you never forget,” she laughs. “Many personalities made an impression on me: each shoot is a great lesson in humility. The more famous the people were, the more punctual they were, and the more respectful they were. It was a bit of a slap, because you realise that very, very famous people don’t need to make a fuss.”

Among all her extraordinary encounters, one of the most memorable for Vanessa was with Princess Charlene. “I was asked to do a series of portraits with the Princess,” she says. “I was very honoured to get that opportunity. We worked together for three days, at the Palace, outdoors, in the swimming pool, with the tiara… it all went really well. I had carte blanche, with her agreement, of course, and I had the idea of turning her Dior dress into a sort of dancer’s tutu. The Princess was fabulous, so professional ! She really went with it, it was incredible. I took a picture of her on the rocks, in front of the Oceanographic Museum, with her long dress. She looks like a mermaid coming out of the water. It’s my favourite shot. I’d love to work with her again.”

If you follow Princess Charlene on Instagram you will already have seen one of the pictures from the session, because the Princess chose one for her profile photo. A tribute to Vanessa, who has lived in Monaco since childhood, and feels strong ties to the Principality.

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Princess Charlene’s Instagram profile photo is by Vanessa von Zitzewitz -© Vanessa von Zitzewitz

“Monaco has an extraordinary side, one that the outside world doesn’t see,” says the photographer. “There’s a village feel to it. This is the real Monaco, far from the glitz of the Place du Casino. And I was very lucky: the Prince came to the opening of the exhibition, along with other political figures. It was a wonderful gift on his part. The Sovereign looked at each photo, commented on the grain in the black and white ones … And  it was funny, because  Mika Häkkinen, the racing driver, was there as well. He was Schumacher’s great rival at the time, and there’s a photo of Schumacher pointing his glove at a screen that shows Mika’s race time. The Sovereign called over to Mika and asked him, “what kind of time is that?”

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Emotion in each shot

The photographer also demonstrated her love for the Principality by creating a book devoted to the bicentennial of the Prince’s Carabinieri. A book that was unveiled by the Sovereign at Prince’s Day a few years ago, and that is just one of a number of photo books by Vanessa.

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The photographer devoted an entire book to the Prince’s Carabinieri – © Vanessa von Zitzewitz

Some of which are on difficult topics. “I published a book that I called Slaughterhouse Angels. For six years, I spent two months a year in Thailand, at an orphanage, living with children with AIDS. At that time, people would die of HIV at around 15 years of age. It was tough, really tough. Thanks to the book, I was able to raise half a million dollars, which I sent to the orphanage,” she says, with a touch of emotion in her voice.

Speaking of emotion, it is what guides Vanessa during her photo sessions. Hence the almost systematic use of black and white. “The subject is much more important in black and white photos. If I had done an exhibition on Schumacher and Ferrari in colour, all you would see would be red. We wouldn’t see his gaze. The colour detracts from the subject, and the emotion I’m trying to capture. These days, there aren’t many positive emotions. The world is violent. So I hope that, through my photographs, I can provide a few positive moments for the people who look at them,”she says.

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Photography: an art that needs support

Given her impressive record, it is hard to imagine that Vanessa von Zitzewitz did not originally set out to be a photographer. She got into the eighth art while studying graphic art at Parsons School of Design in the United States, purely by chance. “Photo classes were compulsory, and to be honest, I wasn’t very enthusiastic. But very quickly, the teacher told me I had an eye, that I saw things other people didn’t. A year later, I published my first book. I was only 22/23 years old and it was a very big project for Cartier. It was pure coincidence, to be honest. I was lucky to have that teacher. I think we’re all gifted at something, and we find out what it is sooner or later.”

Vanessa is passionate about her art and is sad to have watched it develop “the wrong way.” “Back then we were consumed by our work. When you see all these people on Instagram who say they’re photographers, it’s laughable. My hands would be covered in chemicals, I developed my negatives, my pictures… I know how to use a camera properly; they just press a button. The general public doesn’t always appreciate the difference between photos that have been thought through, worked on and printed in a certain way, and therefore have a certain price tag, and photos taken on a phone. Real photography is still a high-quality product. I learned this profession through my hands, sweat and chemicals.”

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Like Michael Schumacher, Vanessa von Zitzewitz lives “full throttle” – © Vanessa von Zitzewitz

However the photographer is happy to share some advice for all those who would like to get into photography. “They should find a subject that they are passionate about. I couldn’t have made my book on horses if I hadn’t been a rider, for example. If you really want to get into a subject and show the flip side of it, to create interesting work, you have to be passionate about what you photograph. That’s vital,” says Vanessa.

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And when she is asked, “which celebrity do you dream of photographing ?”, the answer is immediate, but unfortunately impossible : “Romy Schneider. I would really have loved  to photograph her. She was the most beautiful woman who ever lived, and I don’t think I would ever have got tired of working with ever. I am a Romy Schneider fan, 100%.”

Despite this regret, and after all these years, her passion is still intact. And all Vanessa von Zitzewitz wants is to continue to experience her photo shoots – and her life – “full throttle”.

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