Naked Ambition

For six months, Juergen Teller travelled to Paris for liaisons with Charlotte Rampling in a £4,000-a-night hotel suite. The pair spent their time enjoying an orgy of sex and caviar. Now they want you to see the pictures. Cat Callender meets the fashion photographer baring all for his art, and discovers why peeing on an orchid is such a demanding task

Sunday 28 November 2004 01:00

It was much more difficult peeing in a plant pot than I thought it would be," says Juergen Teller in his Teutonic, monotone voice. He's referring to a self-portrait in his new book, Louis XV, that shows a butt-naked Teller urinating on a phalaenopsis orchid. "I did manage it once but then the camera wasn't working and then there was no pee left. So, I waited a couple of hours before I tried again and I couldn't go and there was just dribble coming out. It was really... er..." Humiliating? I suggest.

Still, you can't feel too sorry for the 40-year-old photographer. He may not have hit the plant pot full flow but he did get to romp with the legendary actress Charlotte Rampling and shack up in the £4,200-a-night Louis XV suite - hence the book's title - of Paris's most deluxe hotel, the Crillon. "The whole book is about doing whatever you want," explains Teller of the collection of Bacchanalian photographs of Rampling and himself. "There are no boundaries. Only the boundaries that you set yourself."

Judging by these playful, bold portraits, Teller would appear to set himself very few. What's more, as the images were captured over a period of six months last year, each new visit to the plush suite resulted in scenarios that seem to have pushed these boundaries further and further. While shots taken at the beginning of the project feature Rampling and Teller flopped out on a bed in a tender, post-coital-style slumber, later photographs are typified by opulent tableaux of the two where Teller's flaccid genitalia dominate the frame. You see, in a reversal of the classical self-portraiture tradition of employing female nudes, it's Teller (not the renowned actress) who poses naked.

Today, Teller is standing fully clothed in the kitchen-cum-living room of his studio near Ladbroke Grove in west London. He's dressed in his trademark scruffy denims, nondescript T-shirt and battered Converse. So low-slung are the jeans that, as he pads around in search of a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights, they reveal a protuberance of pubic hair and ample bottom cleavage. I find myself blushing. Why, I'm not sure, given that after viewing his work, I've seen everything there is to see of Teller - sphincter and all.

"The Crillon is the kind of place where you have carte-blanche to do whatever you want, whether it's an orgy or anything like that," explains Teller of his choice of location for the shoot. "I mean, a lot of things do go on in hotel rooms. If you start thinking about it you probably wouldn't want to stay in a hotel at all. In fact," he adds chuckling, "I'm not sure whether anyone who sees my book will want to stay in the suite where I've been peeing in the plant pot." He's got a point.

In 1986, on the run from German national service and a claustrophobic and fractious home life (his father was an aggressive alcoholic), the 22-year-old Teller left his hometown of Bubenreuth, near Nürnberg, for London. He arrived with three cameras - bought with compensation he had been given by the German health system after he developed asthma as an apprentice violin bowmaker, Teller's first vocation - and pawned two of them. The proceeds kept him afloat while he made appointments, touted his final-year portfolio from the photographic course that he had been on at the Bavarian State College of Photography in Munich and, eventually, secured his first commission.

"Juergen went deeper and beyond the superficial," says Terry Jones, editor in chief and creative director of i-D, the magazine that gave Teller his first break. "He drew something different out of people. There was something that was more of the soul of the person. He showed a more complex side of people's nature." You can see this quality in his pictures of a scarred and menstruating Kirsten McMenamy, an overly made-up, wizened Dame Barbara Cartland, an aggressively gesticulating OJ Simpson or the mussed-up hair on the head of his sleeping baby daughter.

"I didn't have a clue about fashion. I embraced it really badly in the beginning but then I learnt," confesses Teller, who cites his long-time collaborator, the stylist Venetia Scott (his former partner and mother of his seven-year-old daughter, Lola), as a formative influence. "I really wasn't doing any good work. I was doing all this funny Polaroid colour stuff. But then Venetia looked at my old work and told me to go back to that and be instinctive."

Alongside 1980s photographic contemporaries such as Corinne Day, David Sims and Nigel Shafran, Teller found fame with stark, pared-down snaps of scrawny, dishevelled models shot in nondescript, functional environments. They are images that have been credited with changing the face of fashion photography. Dubbed "grunge" or "anti-fashion", they reflected the street style of the time. Such was the power of the gritty anti-aesthetic that Teller helped pioneer, it not only provided the antidote to the super-slick, power-dressed, glossy images of the previous decade, but became endlessly emulated throughout the 1990s and still is even today.

More than a decade on, the man who reinvented fashion photography is busy recreating himself and redefining what constitutes a Juergen Teller photograph. He is doing less fashion-based photography in favour of more personal, art-orientated work. It's not such a leap when you consider that Teller's ability to see something lyrical in what others perceive as the humdrum, is an aesthetic he shares with fellow German Wolfgang Tillmans who won the Turner Prize in 2000.

Having landed last year's prestigious Citibank Photography Prize, Teller has subsequently had solo exhibitions in galleries around the world. This month alone sees the publication of his new book, and a solo exhibition, Juergen Teller The Master, that is currently at the London gallery Modern Art Inc. As for paying the rent, this he does by shooting advertising for the likes of Marc Jacobs (whose campaigns Teller has done for the past four years) and, most recently, Yves Saint Laurent. The salary that he commands means that Teller needs only shoot two campaigns a year to live well.

While Louis XV is undeniably inspired by the campaign Teller shot for last summer's Marc Jacobs ad, to couch it in the context of his fashion work would be too reductive. "When people saw the shot of me and Charlotte on the bed, I think they were unsure if I was going to be her child or her lover or what I was going to be," says Teller of the original campaign image of him clinging to Rampling in a foetal embrace. "So, I wanted to push that further. I realised that there would be certain things that would definitely be going too far for the ad campaign. That's when I started doing the book."

Sphincter-baring poses aside, images in the book of Teller spooning with Rampling or penetrating her ear forcefully with his tongue, lay bare emotions that run the gamut of tender intimacy to aggressive subjugation. "Charlotte was very involved in looking at the work. She never vetoed anything and she never said she wouldn't be able to do this or that," says Teller when I ask how Rampling responded to the pictures. "It seemed to inspire her to think, 'Oh, that's really interesting' and then, suddenly, I was sucking her toes."

So what seduced Rampling, universally worshipped for her aloof, enigmatic beauty, to participate in such a project? Well, it seems Teller first photographed her eight years ago and - as with many of his female subjects - forged an enduring friendship. As surprising as these images might at first appear, closer inspection reveals that Rampling's well-known poise and grace remain intact. It's Teller who bares all, plays the buffoon, and gatecrashes the stillness that surrounds her with his fleshy, Sybaritic figure.

Of course, it's not the first time Teller's tackled the taboo of male nudity. However, he has upped the ante with these photographs by orchestrating scenarios in which he's perversely looking his most middle-aged-spread worst. Falling in with the theme of excess, Teller purposely put on 9kg (20lbs) over the course of the shoot. "I don't really care what I look like. I was trying to reach a certain honesty and pureness which I was able to achieve by being naked," he says of his distinctly Germanic attitude to nudity. "Clothes signified things that I didn't want."

Still, even with the extra pounds, Teller got to take a screen icon to bed - an irony that's not wasted on him. "So many people said to me, 'Oh my God, I am so jealous, you were kissing Charlotte Rampling for the Marc Jacobs ad,'" boasts Teller, who can't stop a healthy dollop of smugness from entering into the conversation. "And I thought to myself, 'You wait till you see this,'" he adds, holding up the book.

Facilitated by his wife, the art dealer and gallery owner Sadie Coles (she took many of the photographs of the two), Teller was freed up to share joint-billing in front of the camera with Rampling. Indeed the photographer's presence makes him as much the star of the book as the actress herself. According to Teller, becoming the subject of his unflinching self-scrutiny, triggered not so much an ego trip but a journey of self-discovery. "To a certain extent the book is a celebration of finding my sense of self. I knew I'd be able to be more brutally honest with me than with anybody else," he says. "There was a time when I'd photographed a lot of celebrities and sometimes that was actually mentally and physically quite draining, to creep inside a person's psyche. I just decided I didn't want to have to figure out other people's neurosis."

Instead, Teller's pictorial universe has become increasingly autobiographical, while the self-portraits he's shot over the past couple of years have offered up his own psychological neuroses for us to pick over. "It was really healthy for me. It opened a lot of doors for me. It opened whole other conversations with my mother. It had a real meaning to deal with my own life and with my father's suicide," he says haltingly of one specific watershed self-portrait, featured in his catalogue Ich Bin Vierzig that comes with Louise XV. The picture shows Teller standing naked on his father's grave swilling beer. "I did certain pictures that we just had to talk about because there was a lot that wasn't talked about, which is very understandable."

His father committed suicide in 1988. Teller has said that his dad's death gave him and his mum a life. While he may not have been on speaking terms with him when he died, it was his dad who was responsible for bullying him into picking up a camera when he was 18 - a fact Teller only recently remembered. Given their fraught relationship, it's ironic that ultimately this was the man who gave him the tools with which he has been able to explore and enjoy his own life. "The camera is a passport to incredibly intriguing, strange and silly worlds which you otherwise wouldn't enter and wouldn't be invited to go in," admits Teller. "But that's what I quite enjoy: spending a night with Marilyn Manson or OJ Simpson." Or even Charlotte Rampling.

'Louis XV' is published by Steidl, priced £28. Juergen Teller The Master at Modern Art Inc, 10 Vyner Street, London E2, tel: 020 8980 7742, until 14 January

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