von Wangenheim was born in Breig, in what was then a war-torn East Prussia, in 1942. His father, an officer in the German Army, died in Soviet captivity in 1953 (most likely a suicide), a tragedy that would go on to inform his son’s dark nature. By this time von Wangenheim was living in the Bavarian mountains with his mother and sister and, inspired by a kindly photographer living in the upstairs flat, had developed a burgeoning interest in photography.
von Wangenheim carried this fascination with him into adulthood, particularly identifying with the work of American fashion photographers, and in 1965 he relocated to New York City to kickstart his own career. He cut his teeth as an assistant for Harper’s Bazaar photographer James Moore, and as a result secured a few pages in the magazine. But it wasn’t until von Wangenheim captured the attention of newly appointed special features editor at Vogue Italia, Anna Piaggi, in 1969 that the young photographer found his moment to shine.
The flamboyant Piaggi had a vibrant and provocative vision that perfectly aligned itself with von Wangenheim’s aesthetic, and under her reign he began to develop his unique, yet definitively 70s style. The 60s and 70s saw a wave of violence seep its way into all areas of popular culture, from Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaste period to films like Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver, and von Wangenheim simply thought, “the violence is in the culture so why shouldn’t it be in our pictures?” What ensued were hugely impactive images filled with gun-toting beauties, teeth-baring dobermans, blood, bare breasts and billowing smoke. von Wangenheim’s work was macabre, sexy, incendiary, chic and in very high demand, and before long he was shooting for everyone from Dior to US Vogue to Playboy.