Juergen Teller: Fashion's provocative photographer reveals all
He got Charlotte Rampling to cuddle up, Victoria Beckham to climb into a carrier bag and Kate Moss to play guitar. How does he do it? Susannah Frankel meets Juergen Teller, the snapper the stars trust
Tuesday 30 June 2009
Juergen Teller is dressed in an oversized white T-shirt and bright blue satin shorts, edged with white piping and so brief they would have made George Best circa 1975 blush. Despite the fact that he is by no means a small man – his legs, in particular, are thickset and strong – he wears them well, like a man who feels entirely at home with his body and perhaps indeed soul. Teller is the very embodiment of extreme self-confidence, not to mention happiness and rude good health.
It is the stuff of fashion folklore that the photographer developed a taste for hot pants while shooting the spring/summer 2004 Marc Jacobs campaign with the actress Charlotte Rampling. "I was thinking, Charlotte Rampling, she has to have a grand environment," Teller says. "And I knew she wouldn't be interested in just doing merchandising for a fashion house. I had to come up with something that went beyond that, something that would interest her, otherwise she would turn it down."
To complicate matters – and fortuitously, as it turns out – Teller, a busy man by anyone's standards, had been briefed to shoot both a womenswear and menswear campaign for the designer in question. Why not combine the two? And why not – or "fuck, why not?" as he puts it – cast himself in the male role?
"I was very selfishly thinking: I'm going to be the man. I want to be with Charlotte Rampling." What guy wouldn't, after all?
"Then, I got to Paris," – having agreed on a suitably grand location, a suite at the Hotel Crillon – "and to my complete horror I couldn't fit into any of the clothes. I was too fat."
His eyes widen. "I was really stressed out about it," he says. "I thought, oh God, what am I going to do now? My desire to be with Charlotte, that drive, had overtaken me to the point where I had overlooked that problem completely and it just wasn't going to work." Salvation came in the form of a pair of silver satin pants – "they are quite like these ones", he says, pointing at his shorts, "they were the only thing I could get into". Rumour has it, he wore them religiously from that day forward.
Whatever, a series of unforeseen – and potentially insurmountable – events resulted in some of the most arresting fashion images that had been seen for years. Here is Teller, in an unmade bed with Rampling, curled up, nearly naked and submissive as a small child in her arms. In another image, the actress rests her beautiful head in his silver shorts-clad lap. The pictures are both tender (suggestive of a love affair more than anything illicit), thought-provoking (Teller, the gentlemanly soul of discretion, says he doesn't know how old Rampling is, but it is safe to assume that she is approaching 20 years his senior), and humorous (he might be scantily clad in all his stocky glory but she is fully clothed to the point of prim).
But perhaps most remarkable of all, this was not a personal art project but a commercial exercise: the most important promotional vehicle for America's most important designer, no less, destined to be published in every glossy fashion and style magazine across the globe. Compare it to the product-focussed, coolly aspirational – and some might say alienating – biannual campaigns that come courtesy of most fashion brands, and this is a different beast entirely, one that, not to put too fine a point on it, makes most advertising appear sterile to the point of frigidity.
Didn't he feel exposed – physically or psychologically – by the publication of these pictures?
"What do you mean?" he asks. Teller can make any question approaching the censorious appear ridiculous. "I was in bed with Charlotte Rampling. I felt like the king of the castle."
On the day we meet, the king of the castle is sitting in the sunny courtyard of his West London studio and home, shared with his partner, the art dealer Sadie Coles and their young son. Teller, who was born in Germany in 1964, also has a daughter with the stylist Venetia Scott – the two of them spearheaded a movement that challenged the world's preconceptions of fashion photography throughout the 1990s. Their use of down-at-heel locations (often their own homes), idiosyncratic models and insistence upon creating a narrative that appeared to go beyond simply "showing the clothes", was in direct opposition to the status-driven aesthetic of the Eighties. Call it grunge, real-life photography or – most infamously – heroin chic. None of these labels are valid or do their work justice. More than any other of the school's main protagonists – David Sims, Corinne Day, Nigel Shafran among them – Teller turned this approach into an art form.
It was Scott who introduced Teller to Marc Jacobs – she has worked as his stylist for years – and the result was a fruitful collaboration that has lasted for more than a decade. To say that the photographer has been discerning with regard to whom he has chosen to collaborate would be something of an understatement. He worked with the Austrian master of minimalism Helmut Lang, from 1993 until his retirement from fashion; he has teamed up with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons, and continues to photograph Vivienne Westwood's advertising, most recently capturing the designer herself with Pamela Anderson, the pair of them gleefully – very gleefully – celebrating Barack Obama's election as President.
"They are all their own boss, if you like," Teller says of the designers for whom he's worked. "Marc Jacobs may be part of a big corporation now that LVMH is involved [as well as designing his own line, Jacobs is responsible for LMVH cash cow Louis Vuitton], but he pulls the strings. You don't have an art director, a creative director, a CEO on the shoot. What Helmut says goes, what Rei says goes, what Vivienne says goes, what Marc says goes. I like that direct approach, where if something goes wrong we only have ourselves to blame. I like that kind of relationship with a person who responds to my work, admires and understands it. Of course I take the whole thing seriously but I couldn't do a job where I didn't have any fun, and just to make money."
Few fashion advertising campaigns would stand the scrutiny of publication in a weighty coffee-table tome. Next month, a new book documenting all of Teller's pictures for Marc Jacobs, from the first campaign for spring/summer 1998 to the present day, is published by Steidl. It's interesting not least because it follows both Teller's and Jacobs' trajectory from bright young outsiders to major players – it's organised chronologically, and the difference between the make-do-and-mend early campaigns featuring left-field musicians, and, say, later big-budget affairs where the subject may even be as well-known as Victoria Beckham, is in many ways as revealing as the individual images themselves.
The pair's first ever subject was Sonic Youth front-woman, Kim Gordon. "It was all very natural," Teller says, more than 10 years later. "Marc was friends with Sonic Youth and we liked their music. Kim really liked one of his dresses and she was wearing it every day on her tour. He was really touched. So he asked whether I'd go and photograph her onstage. It just made perfect sense. We liked her. He was proud that she liked him. I think that you feel that energy in the picture. From then on we realised that, rather than photograph dead things, rather than photograph only product, we wanted to photograph Marc's friends, my friends."
In fact, this particular image stands alone in the body of work in as much as it is pure reportage. While the other pictures in the book may look spontaneous, they are far from it. For the Jacobs campaign Teller may work with a skeletal team – often just with his subject and without the elsewhere-requisite hair and make-up and aforementioned art director, creative director, CEO and so forth. He also has enough faith in his ability to produce an end result to create an environment in which a story is allowed, organically, to unfold. But there is always a story – generally a romantic story or "fairytale" as Teller describes it. These are rather more than mere snapshots, then, even though, on at least some occasions, their appeal lies in the fact that they may, at first glance and to the more naïve onlooker, look that way. At least part of the reason for this is that Teller is pretty much alone in the industry in that his work is only very rarely – if ever – retouched.
"Everything is staged though," Teller confirms. "But it's not like with Charlotte Rampling I thought, 'I'm going to wear silver pants'."
For the autumn/winter 2000 campaign, Teller took Sofia Coppola for a walk in a snowy Central Park. "There's a beautiful girl, in a beautiful coat and she's carrying a handbag. We go for a walk. A squirrel comes and she shows the handbag to the squirrel, the squirrel is interested in the handbag. It just happened and that's how I experience life. I was just thinking, what does a woman do with a handbag, she carries it around. She doesn't sit in a studio holding it up so you can see it more clearly." Six months later he photographed Coppola again, for Marc Jacobs' fragrance campaign. The film-maker swims naked in cerulean blue water dappled with sunlight, smiling at the photographer who, for the first but certainly not last time, puts himself – his feet, to be precise – into the picture.
It says quite something for Jacobs that, given his high profile and the pressure his brand is under to perform commercially, he is prepared to align himself with such an apparently oblique world-view. In the end, though, the calibre of the lead character each season – be she or he an actor, musician, artist, photographer, film-maker – is such that we could all be forgiven for wanting to be them. And that, in the end, is precisely the point. The casting of these images is certainly amongst the most significant things about them and, given the strict adherence to youth and beauty that fashion photography for the most part subscribes to, it is also ground-breaking.
Teller's subjects are nothing if not diverse. REM's Michael Stipe was the face of Marc Jacobs menswear for the autumn/winter 2007 season. "We knew each other. He put himself forward and was like, 'What do you think, it's really embarrassing for me to ask and I won't be offended if Marc doesn't think I'm right.'" Samantha Morton pulled far-from-obviously-flattering faces for him in a platinum wig and silver sequins for autumn/winter 2003.
Teller says that choosing the right subject each season is a highly intuitive process. Jacobs, for example, had long wanted to use Winona Ryder, but Teller wasn't too sure. "I was a bit too frightened by her beauty," he says, "she's like Bambi or something. Then there was that court case, where she stole Marc's clothes and I rang Marc straight away and said, 'You know, I think we should do Winona.'"
On another occasion – for spring/summer 2005 – the artist Cindy Sherman took centre stage. "She's been working with fashion, certainly with dressing up, all her career, putting on these different performances. It would never have been enough to dress her up in Marc Jacobs clothes. Instead, we started to have a dialogue, Cindy and me. She sent me her books and I sent her my books and we looked at each other's work. I'm good at is being very direct and very often in her film stills she's looking away, she's never really involved. She's also always alone. So I thought it would be a good idea for her to interact with someone, but nothing felt right. Then, one day, Sadie and me we were in a traffic jam on the motorway and we just looked at each other and realised, 'Oh God, it's got to be me again.'" The finished campaign is the most openly comedic of any in the book and it is a measure of the creative freedom which Marc Jacobs awards Teller that "I didn't even tell him I was going to be in the pictures. When I finally showed them to him he thought it was fucking hilarious".
The most famous subject in a series which has predominantly featured celebrity at its most esoteric is Victoria Beckham (spring/summer 2008). "I think at the time we shot her, she may well have been the most-photographed woman in the world. It would have been very easy to laugh at her but it was very important to Marc and myself that she was laughing with us. She immediately said 'yes' and she was very, very excited and also well-informed. She studied my work and knew what it involved." The shoot culminated in the stick-thin celebrity being placed into a large Marc Jacobs carrier bag with only her spindly, mahogany brown legs in the shoes of the season on display. "Of course, that was the last picture in the shoot," Teller says. "And it was the one I'd wanted from the start." With its underlying commentary on the disposable nature of both fashion and the modern-day icons we love to hate, it is also perhaps the single most telling fashion photograph of the age.
Most of all, critics insist that Teller is an art photographer – he won the highly prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2003 – and that he doesn't care about fashion. "I am very pleased to say today that I am a fashion photographer who does other things," he says. Teller takes on numerous projects that are not commercially driven in the least. "They're just in my head, I need to do them for me. But it's insane that people say I don't like fashion just because my pictures look a bit different," he says. "Everything is how you dress. Everything. I would never do some sort of stupid picture where everything is dark and you can't see the fabric or whatever, or crop something badly so you don't get the right impression of a garment. I did have my problems with fashion before, maybe. As a heterosexual man, I was always a bit embarrassed of being a fashion photographer and didn't have the confidence to describe myself that way. Now I do have the confidence. It's a weird thing to do, I know, but I just kind of got into it and I think I do it very well."
'Juergen Teller: Marc Jacobs Advertising 1998-2009', £78, is published by Steidl is published in July. To pre-order a copy for £70.20 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
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