Life laid bare: Juergen Teller’s captivatingly raw images
They are as powerful now as they were 20 years ago. On the eve of a new exhibition, Rebecca Gonsalves takes a snapshot of his exceptional career
In the glossy world of fashion, the raw quality present in the work of photographer Juergen Teller remains an arresting sight over 15 years since his career began. He is perhaps most famous for the fact that he still shoots on film – with a camera in each hand no less – and does not retouch his images whether they are of Emma Stone for the cover of February’s issue of W magazine, a triptych of Vivienne Westwood in the nude or his mother with her head in the jaw of a stuffed crocodile. Later this week a new exhibition at The ICA will bring together Teller’s work: editorial, commercial and artistic.
Born in Germany in 1964, Teller studied at the Bayerische Staatslehranstalt für Photographie in Munich. In 1986 he came to London, where telephone calls in broken English to the photographers he admired led to guidance from Mark Lebon and Nick Knight – the latter, with his wife Charlotte, mentored Teller in a significant way.
Gradually his work began to get published, first in i-D with Blitz and The Face soon following. It was at this time that Teller embarked on a relationship with the influential stylist Venetia Scott. The pair would go on to collaborate on some of the most influential images of the Nineties. “I remember that Juergen and Venetia were at the forefront of a movement of so-called ‘real-life’ photographers who reacted against the surface glamour and gloss of the big names that came before them,” says Susannah Frankel, fashion director of Grazia. “They seemed much more interested in character and letting their subjects express themselves through their clothes. Of course it wasn’t as straightforward as that because the images were cleverly conceived but they seemed less bombastic and more easy to identify with – more real, I suppose.” Teller rose to prominence in the Nineties as part of a cabal of fashion creators whose gritty aesthetic was an important counterbalance to the glamour and gloss that had come before it. Nudity is a common theme in his work, as is a sense of vulnerability in the subject, both of which have led to many images being banned.
Teller puts in the groundwork with those he shoots to achieve a connection with the camera, meeting his subject for a meal before a shoot in order to build a dialogue. He is unafraid of positioning himself in the camera’s gaze, too, whether it’s his feet floating towards Sofia Coppola in an azure pool for Marc Jacobs’ first perfume campaign or his naked body cradled by Charlotte Rampling for the same designer.
“There is just so much life in his pictures, they have a pulse,” says Jo-Ann Furniss, a writer and creative director who first noticed Teller’s work as a teenager. “They feel alive in the pages of a magazine. You just take notice of them. The whole process is important to Juergen. He will never do anything he considers ‘Boring!’ So the whole exercise is interesting; the whole back story to an image matters. There is depth and life and spontaneity and you feel all of that in the publication.”
Over the course of his career, the photographer has worked with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, Vivienne Westwood and Helmut Lang – the backstage show images which formed the latter designer’s campaigns are among some of Teller’s most memorable work. As Furniss rhapsodises: “That balance between reportage and the moment still with something so considered and constructed… They might be my favourite fashion pictures ever.”
In 1998, Teller began working with Marc Jacobs. Over the years, as well as Rampling and Coppola, he has shot supermodels, starlets and the designer himself for those campaigns, although his image of Posh Spice in a carrier bag is perhaps one of the most memorable.
“Juergen has an extremely precise perspective on fashion,” says Penny Martin, editor-in-chief of The Gentlewoman and former chair of Fashion Imagery at the London College of Fashion. “He’s not a typical assignment photographer that you would commission to shoot trends. His work is so intensely character-driven that it somehow overrides the stylistic shifts occurring in fashion outside his photographic world – consider how long those Marc Jacobs campaigns have been running, for example. And every season there is still anticipation as to who he will feature.”
Rossella Jardini, creative director of Moschino, who has commissioned Teller to shoot campaigns since 2011, says of that decision: “I felt the need to rediscover the DNA and the origins of the brand. I tried to recapture this vision with a current and honest point of view and yet at the same time I wanted it to tell a story. His quality is typical of someone who treats image as art, he always returns to truth.”
For his part, Gregor Muir, the executive director of the ICA, says: “Teller’s work is a brilliant observation of the times in which we live – he shows that we can reach people no matter how high and mighty or seemingly inconsequential.”
* Juergen Teller: Woo, 23 January – 17 March, The Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1, free admission; 020 7930 3647; ica.org.uk
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