Every picture tells a story - and the clothes are the least of it. In his work for `Vogue', `i-D', Helmut

Lang and Jigsaw, Juergen Teller has created a world of his own. Robin Muir introduces Teller's retrospective

BORN IN ERLANGEN, Germany, in 1964, Juergen Teller is in practice and in spirit a London photographer. It is now over a decade since he gave up his apprenticeship as a bowmaker (he developed an allergy to sawdust) and came here to learn English and escape National Service. He has shot fashion for Vogue, The Face and i-D and advertising campaigns in the verite style for fashion houses such as Jigsaw, Hugo Boss, Helmut Lang and Katharine Hamnett. He is also an incisive - and unusually brutal - portraitist for Vogue (though kinder for other magazines). He has been stills photographer for Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady and a photographer for the music industry. Part of the photographic establishment - his work is held by, among others, the Victoria & Albert Museum - he is, whether he likes it or not, part of the fashion establishment too, photographed behind the scenes at the collections. Now he has his first major show in Britain, at the Photographers' Gallery in London, which includes for the first time much of his substantial body of uncommissioned personal work.

His fashion photographs, for which he is still best known, speak of style, gesture and an intimate communication with people. What they tell us very little about is fashion and glamour: "I am not," he has said, "interested in pieces of clothing." And this is his great success. His pictures linger far longer in the mind as dramas in miniature than fashion photography usually does, and they can be anything you want then to be: snapshots from an extended family album, mise-en-scene from a half-completed film, modern urban dramas, caught moments from his own fictive world. They can be poignant one minute, confrontational the next. Above all, they are distinctive for their very lack of "style". For anyone who is interested in the history of fashion photography, the show will have particular resonance. Teller's dislocated tableaux, most notably for Jigsaw, and British Vogue in collaboration with fashion editor Tiina Laakkonen, have their roots in a particular offshoot of the genre - the narrative sequence - which he has, if not single-handedly, then at least with singular dexterity, reclaimed for commercial photography.

Telling a story through pictures, in the context of fashion magazines, reached its apotheosis with the brilliant and wayward photographer Bob Richardson - whose pictures were condemned as "decadent, immoral and vulgar" by one Vogue editor (only the last epithet stung him). In 1967, Richardson accepted an assignment for French Vogue on condition that he could choose the model (Donna Mitchell) and the clothes, and that no one else would accompany them on location to the Greek islands. The result was a remarkable series of pictures, spread over 16 pages of the magazine; a masterpiece of the narrative approach to fashion photography. The mystery of just what that story was all about was the key to its success, because nothing really did happen or if it did, it happened out of the frame. Donna Mitchell, who maintained she was "drunk out of my fucking mind", was caught in moments of intimacy not seen before in fashion magazines: dancing alone in a taverna, crying on the beach, or just waiting for something to turn up. In the background you were sure something was happening, or was just about to or just had. These were mini-dramas disturbingly and beautifully rendered. Richardson withdrew from photography a few years later, burnt-out and with a reputation for being impossible. With him, for the most part, the filmic narrative sequence died too.

For Teller, like Richardson, fashion photography is a vehicle for expression which goes way beyond the selling of clothes. "It's more about giving the trust, authority and respect," he has said, "to people who know what I like, so that they can create something. In a way I may be editing as a photographer, but I leave everybody - even the model - to create the story out of what is already there ... I let them play a character and in the end that is what I photograph - a day in the life of that character. Everything has to be believable."

And no one tells a story in the fashion magazines today quite like Juergen Teller. In his disconnected world, people topple from buildings, sit bleakly looking out of train windows or on a park bench smoking, or contemplate the urban sprawl with their backs to the viewfinder. It's the summation of what Marion Hume, the former fashion editor of the Independent, once called ``the dirty realism of fashion''.

Far removed from the polished artifice of traditional fashion photography, there is much of the "snapshot aesthetic" about the best of Teller's photographs. His is in effect an "anti-fashion" stance, stripped of any associations with glamour, which has at times conflicted with the editorial contents of the magazines he works for. But Teller has brought editors and art directors to accept his own reality. The brooding humanity in his pictures brings to mind at least two of the great photographic names of Mittel- Europa: Josef Koudelka and August Sander. Teller is essentially a documentarist. Perhaps in spirit he isn't a London photographer after all.

'JuergenTeller': Photographers' Gallery, WC2 (0171 831 1772), 29 May to 25 July. Teller's pictures of Berlin are at the Cubitt Gallery, N1 (0171 278 8226), to 28 May.

Bjork and Son, Iceland, 1993 (opposite)

Used sparingly by `Vogue', Teller's portraits for the magazine have, at their most extreme, a brutal directness. This, for `The Face', though more sympathetic, still draws its strength from the subjects' eerie similarity and imperfect beauty

Venetia and Lola, Cornwall, 1997

Much of Teller's personal work will be in the Photographers' Gallery show, including a series of portraits of his partner, the stylist Venetia Scott, and their daughter, Lola. Of his working relationship with Scott, who has art-directed most of his best-known pictures, Teller has said, `We will talk about an idea, then establish and cast a character, and only then get the clothes. We never really start with the idea of, say, doing a white-shirt story. But when Venetia talks about something, I can immediately visualise it'

Kate Moss, Paris, 1995

Teller's casual - almost oblique - attitude to fashion photography has much in common with a `snapshot aesthetic', encouraged by magazines such as `The Face' and `i-D'. In the most intriguing of Teller's oeuvre, chance and spontaneity appear to play a vital part. `At some points I worry so much, but then i just let go and every time something happens that makes it work out'

Kristen McMenamy, Paris, 1995

Shot for German designer Helmut Lang. For Teller, `the model is never a clothes horse ... Before I began to work with supermodels, the first chance I had to meet them was backstage, where you could feel the insecurity they have about their bodies. It's not that I want to exploit their insecurity, but rather to show that beauty can be found in frailty and fragility'

Kristen McMenamy, London, 1996

One commentator has called this picture (part of a series for `Suddeutsche Zeitung') `one of the most iconic fashion images of the Nineties', but it was, Teller says, `not my intention to shock'

Frozen Dead Dog, Czechoslovakia, 1990

There is a pure documentary strain to some of Teller's work. This macabre tableau, which he has described as `extremely melancholic', is straight out of a middle-European fairy tale. `When I work with Venetia, it becomes important to make things beautiful and romantic, whereas working on my own I tend to be drawn to subjects that are more destroyed'

Jigsaw Menswear, London, 1997

Bringing to mind Robert Longo's paintings of falling men, this image is typical of Teller's narrative, filmic style. What happened before or after the frame was shot is uncertain. What can be said, though, is that it probably didn't have much to do with the clothes

Juergen and Lola, London, 1998

Teller's next project is for Walter Keller of Scalo, who has published, among others, the books of Robert Frank. Teller's book will be a distillation of his private work, of which this is a recent, and intimate example. It will have little - if anything - to do with fashion