PARIS, France — “Right now, I am super-excited about fashion,” Juergen Teller said recently over room service at a discreet 5-star hotel near the Arc de Triomphe. “It goes in phases for me. I find that when you feel good yourself, you’re able to see the beauty and the magic and the fantasy in fashion. It’s a very exciting world.”
Teller currently shoots advertising campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Céline and Vivienne Westwood, among others, and has contributed to virtually every important fashion magazine in the last 20 years. But with a constant stream of books and exhibitions, he is also one of the rare fashion photographers to have earned equal recognition as an artist. According to Teller, his two modes of operation form a mutually enriching loop. “My own work, the books and exhibitions, naturally feed into my fashion work. And, conversely, the fashion work provides me with ideas for my personal projects.” In fact, his many book projects — whose subjects range from his beloved son Ed to the game of football, a major Teller obsession — are a key part of what keeps him excited about fashion. "I have to take time out, remove myself and do something else, other things that excite me in life. Photographing fashion all the time would be dead boring."
Teller’s work is routinely described as ‘raw,’ ‘stark’ and ‘overexposed,’ but it could equally be described as existential, touching and precise. He explores an octopus on a bed with the same exactitude he devoted to Charlotte Rampling and Raquel Zimmermann, naked at the Louvre in 2009. (For the shoot, the world’s most famous museum turned off its surveillance cameras to protect the privacy of the subjects.) Teller, himself, describes his aesthetic as "direct and romantic and brutal at the same time." And, indeed, from the tenderness of the images of the photographer’s mother Irene wandering through the woods (2012) to the graphic sexuality of his pictures of Kristen McNemany (including, most famously, a 1996 image featuring the model with the word ‘Versace’ drawn in a heart on her chest) his oeuvre covers the full spectrum of human experience. Combining a renegade charisma with a gifted eye and finely tuned sense of how to construct an image, Teller took the so-called ‘grunge’ aesthetic of the 1990s and elevated it into something personal and novel, at once straightforward and poignant and, in the case of his commercial fashion work, relatable yet ultra-desirable.
Teller’s trajectory is inseparable from his choice to leave his native Germany for London in 1986, after studying photography in Munich for two years. His main objective, he says, was to avoid military service and learn English: “America was too far and I had a car.” So Teller, aged 22, drove to London. “I only knew it was foggy, it rained a lot and Edgar Wallace books and films, but I was desperate to escape the army and London seemed like the only way out,” he says of the city where he has now lived for 29 years.
Teller started out working for record labels, shooting album covers (including the sleeve for Sinead O’Connor’s hit single ‘Nothing Compares to You’). He never aspired to work in fashion, but rode a wave of new British youth culture magazines (which connected art, fashion and music) into the industry. In particular, publications like i-D and The Face became the perfect vehicle for Teller’s idiosyncratic sensibility.
If you ask a client or subject to do what is in your head, it actually sounds incredibly stupid. But the outcome is not stupid at all.
Teller’s first full fashion story was published in Arena Homme Plus in the mid-1990s. “[Working at Arena Homme Plus] was a great opportunity and learning curve for me. I learnt how to do a commercial job, how to do a portrait, to be on time. [Before] I had been very naive about the teamwork and professionalism it takes to succeed.”
As Teller points out, the scene that nurtured him was more than a mere professional milieu. The band of stylists, designers, editors and musicians that he fell into — an eclectic coterie that included people like Judy Blame, Neneh Cherry and up-and-coming stylist Venetia Scott — ran together socially and supported each other emotionally. "It was mesmerising, I have never seen anything like it and I am not sure that kind of community exists today. There was a certain innocence to it, of just wanting to do these pictures or these stories, say things we thought were important about these new clothes that were being made. And, you had time."
Scott became Teller’s girlfriend in 1990 and together the pair started producing ambitious editorials that stood out for their opposition to the surface glamour of the 1980s. Though they were meticulously composed, their message read as more authentic and carried a disaffected attitude that was new in fashion. When Scott went on trips to Paris to see the fashion collections of rising talents like Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang, Teller accompanied her, triggering his curiosity about what went on behind the scenes and steering his career more and more towards the industry.
In his typical dead-serious yet funny manner, Teller recalls his first encounter with Lang, in 1993, as a Zoolander-like meeting between two kindred mavericks in the exotic land of fashion. “I was this lonesome German guy and found another funny German-speaking dude who stood out in this world, making great fashion in Paris that everyone was going crazy about. We instantly liked each other."
The meeting led to an 11-year collaboration between Teller and the Austrian designer, the backbone of which is a series of backstage images. While far less known than his celebrity portraits and more brazen fashion work, among fashion cognoscenti these images are revered and considered to be among Teller’s best work.
Growing up in a working-class household in a small Bavarian town, Teller says he had “no cultural education whatsoever in the strict sense. My freedom was always to go play football and play in the woods. But at one point my older cousin started coming home with jazz records. They had these great record covers and I really got into jazz. Of course, this was parallel to my interest in Sweet, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, as well as heavy metal, which I got into when I was 13.”
“Actually — and this is just occurring to me now — [Munich jazz label] ECM had these amazing record covers that I would stare at forever when I was a teenager. They had an unrelated photograph surrounded by a white border with the artist’s name, the album title and the name of the label written on it.” Teller gets excited connecting the dots he says he wasn’t consciously aware of before we speak.
A seemingly random image surrounded by vast expanses of blank page is, of course, something of a Teller trademark, denoting, specifically, his 15-year run (1998 to 2013) shooting ad campaigns for Marc Jacobs. Teller talks fondly about working with Jacobs. “Just like with Helmut, Marc and I understood each other right away. We both had this total interest in culture and people, so we became friends.” In the early years, Teller says he worked for Jacobs for free. “But I wanted to do it, because it was very inspiring and super-exciting.” In exchange, however, he asked for complete creative control of the ads. "I said, if I am not getting paid, I am in control of how big the type is, the layout, if there's a frame around the picture, how many pictures are used and it will say ‘Claudia Schiffer’ — or whoever was featured — ‘photographed by Juergen Teller.’"
Teller isn’t shy about the wide-reaching impact of the ads, which epitomised the brand of bohemian New York cool that Marc Jacobs became known for and featured the likes of Kim Gordon and Cindy Sherman doing alluringly banal things. "By designing these ads myself, I influenced a whole slew of magazines for the next 20 years. Before we did it, there were no white borders, everything was super messy and busy — all ads were full-bleed."
The Marc Jacobs ads are also a good example of his favoured ways of working. While some of the images suggest that they were spur-of-the-moment shots, in fact, “everything is completely thought through and planned.” Each image is the result of communication. “The way you get to a good photograph is through conversation. There is always a serious discussion, of who would be a good subject or model, where we should we shoot. It's always a long dialogue. Well, sometimes it's quick and evident and sometimes it can drag itself out.”
Even when the final image depicts a lighthearted, silly or absurd situation, during the process that leads up to it, nothing is taken lightly. "I take my work very, very seriously, whether it's my own work or commercial work. I don't just say, 'Oh, the model we want is not available, let's just use this other one and it's going to be okay.’"
Take one of Teller’s most recognisable images, featuring Victoria Beckham’s legs poking out of an oversized Marc Jacobs shopping bag. While the choice to photograph the former Spice Girl as a product — a tongue-in-cheek comment on her image at the time — may seem like a spontaneous decision made on set, the peculiar pose was decided months in advance. Perhaps the hardest part was getting Beckham’s management to relinquish final photo approval. But he was, ultimately, able to convince her in one phone call with his signature combination of candour and charm. “I am always completely open and direct, and I would never take or use a bad picture of someone. There are no surprises, that’s why they trust me,” he says, adding cheekily, “I knew I was going to win, because vanity is always on my side.”
While other leading fashion photographers are more willing to adapt their aesthetic to fit a certain job, Teller has remained remarkably faithful to his vision and, with age and experience, he says he has become more confident in his choices. "I am more sure within myself about what I like. I realised I can be more myself and do funny pictures, tragic pictures or stupid or silly pictures. For a while, I wasn't strong enough and too self-conscious to express what I really wanted to do. Because if you ask a client or subject to do what is in your head, it actually sounds incredibly stupid. But the outcome is not stupid at all.”
As fashion brands exercise more control over their image, fewer are willing to grant Teller carte blanche. With little left to prove, however, the photographer isn’t too bothered by it. “I have the security of my back catalogue in fashion and my own projects and I’m getting to a level where I’m more open and willing to let things be and need less control. In the end, it’s just a job and I do it as well as I can."
In a major about-face, Teller recently started shooting digital. (He famously always shot with two Contax G2s.) “Computers used to scare me. For a very long time I didn’t even have a mobile phone and I didn’t start checking email until three years ago.”
Considering his vast output and that taking pictures seems as natural to him as eating or going to the loo (both of which he has documented in frank self-portraits over the years), it is hard to believe Teller ever puts his camera down, let alone that there are days when he doesn’t know what to shoot. But the photographer insists that inspiration isn’t always easy to find. “It is extremely painful, but also very healthy, when you really don’t know what to photograph or what to do anymore. Because what can you photograph all day long?” When ideas elude him, he prefers not to photograph at all, rather than repeat himself: “I’d rather watch football with my son than take boring pictures.” But on the flip-side, Teller says, “I know when I am taking a good picture. I just know it. I feel it with my mind and my body.”
“It’s hard work. You need to be educated about photography and have a deep knowledge of the medium’s history, its whole spectrum. It’s a serious profession and a lot of education and craft is involved in creating work. Moreover, you can’t be afraid of not earning any money or of rejection. If you’re open and positive, fashion can give you extraordinary access and incredible opportunities, and allow you to meet the most amazing people. If you’re courageous, it will open doors and lead you to places and situations you couldn’t have dreamt of.”