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Juergen Teller: The Challenges of Radical Image-Making

At BoF VOICES, the German photographer sat down with Editor-at-Large Tim Blanks to discuss the beauty and tragedy of life, and the existentialism of his work.
Juergen Teller and Tim Blanks in conversation during #BoFVOICES | Source: Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — Juergen Teller likes to swear. But the most poignant part of the German art and fashion photographer’s conversation with Tim Blanks at BoF VOICES was devoid of fucks. “Life is stupid; it’s beautiful and tragic,” he said, addressing the fundamental existentialism of his work. “My father killed himself in 1988; he was an alcoholic,” he continued. “I could have easily gone that way, but I decided to do something different with my life.”

As two bodies of Teller's work scrolled past — Heimweh (German for 'homesickness' or 'yearning for home') and Leben und Tod ('Life or Death') — Blanks picked up on an observation originally made by Italian curator Francesco Bonami, asking Teller whether he identified as a modern-day Hamlet. "Most of my work is very tragic," replied the photographer.

But how does a fashion photographer double as an existentialist?

Teller maintains a separation between his fashion assignments and his personal work. But the two naturally blend together as he pushes the limits of radical editorial and advertising images. "I try to make the commercial work as interesting as possible," he explained, citing his pictures with the likes of Cindy Sherman and Charlotte Rampling for designer Marc Jacobs. "I use these commercial things for my own good," he added. "Everything that I do is a self-portrait in one form or another. When you feel the intent of the person producing the work, it's successful."

Lately, Teller’s work has featured political messages pertaining to Brexit, such as his use of Johann Koenig’s hoodies, adorned with a European Union flag with one star missing for the departure of the UK. “I am alive in the world and I see things and I make comments about them,” he said, declining to call his work overtly political. “I use the world around me,” Teller explained. “I have the same focus when I photograph food, my mother, a handbag, my children.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering.

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