Photography unlimited

Juergen Teller is in demand because his disturbing, documentary- style images sell clothes like nothing else. But as a new exhibition reveals, his pictures are about much more than fashion.

When a famous fashion photographer exhibits his pictures in a gallery, it tells us we're meant to take them seriously. There are the thin girls in even thinner frocks, as you'd expect, plus a smattering of countryside shots and some snaps of someone's nearest and dearest - all seemingly thrown together with the casual exhaustion that results from jetting around the world from shoot to shoot.

But appearances are deceptive. Juergen Teller emphasises how much the photographic ensembles making up this exhibition have been planned, and how excited he was by the idea of "blending" his pictures together.

Does this mean we should read a thematic link between the pictures grouped together? "Since they're all my work, the different types of pictures don't matter," he says, rather easily. "Their juxtaposition interests me. I've got really bored with seeing my work again and again, and I wanted to do something different".

The voice, while completely charming, still carries a heavy German accent, but the tone of ennui is unpretentious: his work really is everywhere - in the crucial glossy magazines, on the album covers, the posters on the streets. Probably the single most influential fashion photographer of the past decade, Teller, only 33, now has the fashion world begging for his services. The reason is simple: his pictures sell product. Countless people have tried to clone his random style, but he is dismissive of his imitators: "They only seem to pick up on the snapshot aspect of my work, and they create superficial pictures as a result. It's a thought-out process and I take a long time to edit my pictures."

In general, his work conveys a cool, lazy chic of the crashed-out-but- fabulous-anyway kind, an attitude that brilliantly announces its refusal to be tempered, weighed and measured by the mundane world of mortgages, cellulite and the weekly shop. Fear doesn't make an appearance in his pictures: instead raw confidence - albeit slightly dazed - stares out from the flashbulb-bleached faces caught by his camera. Kristin McMenamy naked and smeared with lipstick, with a tampon string poking out from her pubic hair. Kristin as high-gloss glamour queen. Isabella Blow looking absurd. Kirsten Owen looking ridiculously beautiful at the kitchen table. A wary, scary Courtney Love squatting on the floor, mobile mouth refusing to stay steady. And then all those pictures of Kate Moss: Teller has just completed a short film with her as the star.

"It's about ownership of the image," he enthuses. "I'm the photographer and she's the model and we play out this thing. She's the ultimate model capitalised by Calvin Klein across the world."

Judging by the script he read aloud to me, her ads for that company, with their particular brand of weightless, nostalgic sophistry, will have been valuable training. Does the fame of famous people get in the way of a good picture? "It depends how famous they are and where they come from. Americans want to control the image, and so I'm just a product for them. I photographed Love again six weeks ago and the difference between that and my first pictures of her years ago was amazing. Back then she was moody and tragic. But she's changed: she's off the drugs and is now a major US celebrity. It's just not worth it now."

You can see his point. "Squeaky clean" is not a phrase you would associate with the man responsible, as some commentators have argued, for the promulgation of heroin chic in the fashion industry. "I liked the stories he did right away," says Terry Jones, editor of I-D magazine and one of Teller's early supporters. "He brought a contemporary documentary style into fashion. What's interesting about his work is that he's gone through the experience as a photographer in a similar way the subject has; he becomes the person who's being manipulated. OK, people have accused him of presenting women in a vulnerable way, but in fact I think they were presenting their vulnerability to him. However," Jones adds, "sometimes he has pushed this too far".

So, I ask Teller tactfully, have you ever been appalled by any of your work? There is a long silence, punctuated by him rubbing his long ragged hair. "Yes. I once did some pictures of this 15-year-old girl for a German magazine and I was blown away by it. She was so extremely exhibitionist that I felt out of control. It was so exploitative that I questioned my responsibility as a photographer. She'd had this horrendous upbringing and I wondered if I should really invite her to push herself even further into stupidity."

Teller goes on to explain that he is not interested in fashion itself, but rather in what somebody's wearing, in the attitude a woman has: "I'm bored with the perfectly formed nude body. It doesn't interest me sexually or professionally. But when women wear a skirt, or lipstick, or jeans and a sweater - their whole body language changes," he exclaims with evident relish. "I use clothes as a film director uses a location, to make a character work."

Central to his working process is Venetia Scott, the style director of many of his campaigns and the mother of his seven-month-old daughter, Lola. Scott is a shadowy figure who disdains the limelight. There are only a few images of her in the exhibition: crouched in temporary despair on a country lane; pregnant in a snapshot of the pair of them naked in a hotel bathroom. Other pictures of her reveal a face charged with immense determination, a passionate conviction that Project Teller can only move forward. It is a perfect match: his infallible directness with her conceptual flair.

Teller is more cautious when photographing men, however: in his recent campaign for Jigsaw Menswear the male models hardly show their faces, and even the moments of high narrative drama he chose to animate the collection are very obviously staged.

"You get bored with these male stereotype geezers and you think what is the `coolness' of a man - an actor, a musician? I deliberately chose the theme of stuntmen because their lives are about adventure and pushing your life to the limit. I am weirdly drawn to that. It's hard for me to explain" - his voice falters - "but my father killed himself and I think this still comes through certain pictures."

Is there a difference between his professional photography and the pictures he takes of people close to him? "They know me well and I find that really difficult. I particularly want to do some more pictures of my mother. It's f***ing difficult photographing one's mother. I don't have the authority with her that I have with a stranger, because she doesn't take me seriously. Venetia is more easy now, but when I started, she always corrected me - I shouldn't use this camera and I should use black and white and not colour. Then she got pregnant, and a strong sense of memory started being important to me. I wanted to record a lovely, intimate, peaceful moment. I never felt that before."

The ringing telephone shatters his reverie. Juergen Teller is off to photograph Donatella Versace tomorrow and there are things to finalise. "All that bleach-blond hair and gold furniture - it's just my kind of thing," he grins.

`Juergen Teller' is at the Photographers' Gallery, 5 and 8 Newport Street, London WC2, until 25 July.

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