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

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?