Speaking at Vogue Festival, the legendary German photographer gave an insight into his work
With his candid, snapshot style aesthetic having dominated the last three decades in fashion, Juergen Teller has played a prominent role in redefining the potential of fashion photography. The artist and photographer’s extensive career has included long-term collaborations with the likes of Marc Jacobs and Céline (shooting their campaigns every season), model Kristen McMenamy and more recently with Kim and Kanye – whom he shot for that truly bizarre System shoot in the French countryside.
Known for his ‘straight-up’ approach, both behind the camera and in conversation, we went along to Vogue Festival to learn a thing or two from the maverick. He missed the German Cup Final with his team Bayern Munich for this.
HE PLANNED TO BE A VIOLIN BOW MAKER
At eighteen, Teller took up an apprenticeship in bow making, but was allergic to the wood dust from the bows and it affected his health. To recover from a serious bout of allergy, he went camping in Italy with his cousin, a keen photographer. He was at first uninterested in his cousin’s constant stopping to set up shots of sunsets and landscapes but was soon converted – on first looking through the lens, he realised “this was the moment that I think I actually saw for the first time in my life.” He ditched his apprenticeship and went to study photography.
TELLER IS ALWAYS IN HIS PHOTOGRAPHS EVEN WHEN HE’S NOT IN THEM
You’ll have seen Teller, probably in his short shorts looking like an aspirational hiker, because he features frequently in his own images, sometimes with his subjects and sometimes solo. He’s been foetal in bed with Charlotte Rampling and let his feet bob into shot while photographing Sofia Coppola in a swimming pool, creating a space in which he is both viewer and subject. It all stems from a desire to understand those who pose for him – and their vanity. “There was a stage in my career when I started to have problems with the vanity aspect of the subject,” he said. “I got frustrated and bored with it. Then I thought actually, how does it feel to be photographed? That’s when I started to photograph myself. That was an incredibly important moment, and it opened up my work tremendously. And then my subjects would see this and they in turn would become a lot more adventurous and a lot more risky.”
LONG-TERM COLLABORATION IS STILL IMPORTANT TO HIM
In today’s fashion industry, it seems that names are made in seasons rather than years. Still, despite the increasing pace, Teller continues to place an importance on lasting creative partnerships. “I’ve had my clients for many many years,” he commented. “I was with Marc for seventeen years, with Vivienne Westwood for a long time; I’ve worked for Phoebe for Céline since she started at Céline. I’ve worked with Kristen McMenamy for twenty-five years. I just don’t want to go and throw that model away and go onto the next one. I want to spend some time with the person, and have a chance to discuss things...I’m not interested in running around from one shoot to another. I like friendship.” The upside to those longstanding relationships? No one ever says no to his ideas – they trust him by now.
“After them saying ‘I’m not doing this, I’m not doing this’ I’m thinking I just want to fucking run free here” – Juergen Teller on why he put himself into that Kim and Kanye shoot
TELLER MEANS ‘PLATE’ IN GERMAN
In case you didn’t know. And the photographer’s next exhibition (opening in Bonn, Germany in June) will be a series of giant 1.8-metre plates depicting some of his self-portraits, produced in his new studio. “I thought (that) I’d been doing so many self-portraits, I started to play around with putting images on the plate...Then I thought fuck, I’ll make them into these great huge sculptures,” the photographer explained. He then photographed friends and collaborators with them for Arena HOMME+, including one shot of Raf Simons in an armchair next to a giant circular discus of Teller. His interest in the simple plate, came in part from the connection with his name, and in part because “there’s always a plate around, on set, on shoots.”
AND ABOUT THAT KIM AND KANYE SHOOT
The self-portraits of Teller in the shoot with Kim and Kanye were actually taken at a separate time. Teller explained they were added in “as a reaction to the final pictures. And as a reaction to having had to deal with the immense power of control. I don’t really like being controlled by anyone.” It was West himself who remarked that there was three A-listers here in the shoot – himself, Kardashian and Teller. “I thought fuck it then, I’m going to be in it too,” Teller said. “After them saying ‘I’m not doing this, I’m not doing this’ I’m thinking I just want to fucking run free here.” Hence the semi-naked hiker poses of the photographer mid-way across a muddy stream. “It just showed me the beauty of vanity and the ridiculousness of vanity,” he said of the shoot.