LONDON, United Kingdom — For the past ten days, Phillips’ luminous glass box in Berkeley Square has been home to an exhibition of new photographs by Juergen Teller. The show underscores a Teller moment, with Arena Homme + and System, two of the weightier style bi-annuals, both featuring expansive portfolios of recent work. Put those hundreds of disparate images together and it’s obvious that they are united by one over-riding theme: Juergen Teller. Obvious, that is, to everyone except the man who made them. Or so he insists. “I didn’t even realise when I looked at the exhibition, and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s all about me.’ Then I thought, ‘Fuck it, it works. What else am I going to do?’”
But what else has he ever done except refract his own life through his work? That is now truer than ever. There were three stories on show at Phillips. The first was centered on Teller’s stay at the Mayr Clinic in Austria, around which revolved a constellation of family matters, like his Aunt Gisele’s 70th birthday party. The second was a photographic paean to football fanatic Teller’s “man crush,” Pep Guardiola, the manager of Bayern Munich. The third — inevitably the focus of media attention — was Teller’s collaboration with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West, also for System Magazine. The trio’s day out in the French countryside has already entered Internet annals as “the most bizarre photo shoot of all time.” As the story that seemed farthest from Teller’s (dis)comfort zone, it offers some illuminating insights into his motivations.
Previously, Teller had photographed West for the New York Times and enjoyed the experience so much that he suggested meeting up again in Paris. “I said, ‘What about doing something with your wife?’ And he said, ‘I’ll style her’. Stupid me, I thought I’m just going to go over there for half an hour to photograph her in their hotel room. But that wasn’t fun for them at all. Kanye ordered in all the clothes, and the hair and makeup and suddenly it was a big production. Then I realised what I’d got myself into.”
In the interests of “big,” Teller decided on something outside, obviously impossible in Paris with all the paparazzi. The Chateau D’Ambleville, an hour outside the city and formidably walled away from prying eyes, seemed like a viable option. “But when we got there I suddenly thought this beautiful French garden looked too much like their wedding in Italy. It didn’t feel quite right. And I’m seeing all this countryside around and I’m thinking, ‘I just want to do it there.’” So that was how Kim Kardashian West came to be posed against a backdrop that looks like a derelict barnyard.
These Hollywood people are so careful of their image and looking right. I just want to wade through rivers, climb mountains. And I prevail.
Teller was so fascinated by the opportunity to work with the Wests that he ceded control over re-touching, something he’s never done before. It’s curious to consider such a thing, given that one quality that defines his photographs is their lack of vanity — perverse in the industry where he makes his living. But, equally, he still managed to assert himself when, confronted by people whose control of their own image is obsessively absolute, he put himself in the picture, literally and figuratively inserting himself between the couple. Teller’s Kimye portfolio is called Kanye, Juergen & Kim. For every careful Kanye-styled and positioned shot of Kim, there’s pole-walking Juergen in his red puffer, toque and short shorts, doggedly fording a freezing stream, scaling mini-mountains of rural detritus. Adding to the obstacle course flavour of these photos is the fact that he’s trailing an incongruous wheelie bag. Metaphor alert! “It’s a comment about how difficult it is to make an original picture,” Teller clarifies. “About doing something other people don’t do. But I can do it. And Charlotte Rampling would have done it, Vivienne Westwood would have done it.” (Both women have bared their souls — and, in Dame Vivienne’s case, a lot more — for Teller.)
And that is, of course, why Kanye West did it, and brought his wife along for the ride. Teller is a person who people do things for. He laughs heartily at the thought. “They only do it because they see it in me. It’s very difficult to explain, but it makes complete sense. I want adventure in my life. I want to do things I haven’t done before. These Hollywood people are so careful of their image and looking right, but there’s a wildness when I come into the photographs. I just want to wade through rivers, climb mountains. And I prevail.”
Truer words were seldom spoken. While it’s bizarre enough to see Mrs West propped up against rusty farm equipment, it’s the sheer oddness of the pictures of Teller industriously trucking along with his ski poles that dominate the Kimye portfolio. It’s ostensibly collaboration, but ultimately it is, as he points out, all about him, like everything he does. “That Phillips show? I did it for myself. I wanted to see how it looked on the wall. Of course, I want my friends to see it, and if five people like it, that’s enough for me. Popularity doesn’t interest me whatsoever.”
On paper, that kind of dismissiveness can be easily misconstrued. So, for that matter, could a statement as bald as “I prevail.” That discounts Teller’s wry humour, and a nature-based romanticism that seems very German. He loves a dark forest. And just look at him posed atop a pile of tree stumps like one of Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary heroes. The wheelie bag is positively transfigured.
Besides, Teller doesn’t always prevail. Or at least he didn’t with his “man crush” Pep Guardiola. Joining Bayern Munich on their tour of China for Die Zeit magazine, Teller was flummoxed by the steely charm with which Guardiola shut him down. He had all the proximity but none of the access he’s used to. As frustrating as that was, he calls the resulting portfolio “a new body of work like no other for me. It’s normally very clear that I’m going to do a portrait of you, but that never happened with Pep. I photographed all the other players, but I never had a direct appointment with him.” So there is shot after shot after shot of Guardiola going about his day — giving press conferences and Pep talks to his players, getting in a round of golf, going somewhere in a car (Teller in the back seat, photographing the back of his head) — but the only picture that might be considered a portrait is the last one in the portfolio, Teller himself, spurned, crouching alone in a hotel room, watching Bayern Munich play on tv.
Teller himself raises the obvious issue about his “love letter” to Guardiola (who is, by the way, now in “advanced talks” about a move to Manchester City). “I was just hoping that I didn’t come across as some weird stalker, though I was travelling under the umbrella of Bayern Munich, so it was not really like stalking. And I kept Pep’s dignity. I realised this is actually a really good portrait of him, because that is his work life.” Anyway, this particular story has a very happy ending to. Mere hours before we meet for lunch, Teller has been invited to go on photographing Bayern Munich, with a view to an eventual exhibition in the team’s museum. “For me that’s better than having a show in the MOMA,” he exults.
Teller mentioned dignity, so what about his own? “Oh, I don’t care about that. Of course, I have a responsibility towards my mother, my children and my wife not to embarrass them. Which, of course, I have done. But if everything is morally right in that context, I want to do whatever I want.” Though his work is much more technically considered than casual acquaintance would suggest, he insists aesthetics have little interest for him. In Teller’s eyes, content is king. But his version of “morally right” has inevitably caused familial tension, most notoriously with an image of Teller standing naked on his father’s grave, foot poised on football, clutching a beer. When his mother rooted out a proof of the picture from his luggage, she was mortified. “She didn’t think that was funny. Nor did she like me being naked with Charlotte Rampling. She’s a mother.” Does he care if he hurts her? “Very much. But what needs to be done, needs to be done.” And, as far as he was concerned, that photo on his father’s grave was completely necessary.
Sometimes I’m too shy to take photographs, but in my altered state, I had somehow to be brutal, to get up and take these pictures, because sometimes I let situations slip.
Francesco Bonami, the curator responsible for the Phillips exhibition, and a number of other Teller shows over the past 15 years, proposes something tantalising in his essay accompanying one of the portfolios in Arena Homme+. Juergen Teller is Hamlet, making peace with the ghost of an alcoholic father who was largely absent from his childhood and who then consolidated that absence by killing himself. And his way to make peace is to reach an understanding with the world. “The skull that Hamlet holds in his hands asking him ‘To be or not to be?” is in Teller’s hands just the common reality around him,” Bonami writes. Everything matters. There are miracles in every moment.
That’s why Teller’s work is so addictive, so mesmerising in its finely tuned repetitions, in its hypnotic circling around a single subject. Like his Aunt Gisele’s 70th birthday party. Her granddaughter has just returned from Africa where she has encountered a ritual where the birthday boy or girl feed the other kids with cake. Gisele and her guests duplicate the ritual. Teller photographs each and every mouthful. He claims he was sensitised to the subject matter by his cleansing stay at the Mayr Clinic, which eventually helped him to unnervingly lose between 10 and 15 kilos. “Life rolls forward as a reaction to something that just happened,” he says. And here he was, all Mayr-slimmed and healthy, watching fat people feed each other cake. “Sometimes I’m too shy to take photographs, but in my altered state, I had somehow to be brutal, to get up and take these pictures, because sometimes I let situations slip. I could hardly do these pictures but once I smelled how good they were, I did it.” It sounds cruel when Teller puts it like that, but the pictures aren’t. They’re goofy and funny and show a party of people having a good time. Brutally honest maybe, but Teller’s too human — and humorous — to be cruel. And he’s populist, and passionate with it. You can just picture the look on Helmut Lang’s face as Teller tries to make him turn on the TV so he can watch the football. “It was the Euros!” he says, indignant to this day.
Then you cast your mind back to what he said about how his work moves forward by reacting to what’s come before, and you reflect on the three distinct bodies of work on the walls in Berkeley Square, and you find yourself thinking “Well, there’s something for football fans, and there’s something for armchair psychologists, and Kimye fans are going to love that wall.’ That is starting to sound like a peculiar kind of popularity. Teller isn’t remotely fazed by the thought. “Mass appeal, completely,” he agrees delightedly. “I’m the winner here.” Imagine that: Juergen Teller, all things to all people. What a wonderful world.