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Q&A: Juergen Teller

A peek into the private world of fashion’s greatest underground photographer

Feature taken from the February Issue of Dazed & Confused:

There’s an awkward, acrobatic humour that emerges in the light-saturated photographs Juergen Teller grabs from his life. Although equally known for his long-running, inventive campaigns for Marc Jacobs and his innovative fashion imagery, it’s in his personal work that Teller is most inspiring. Originally from Bavaria, he has been based since 1986 in London, where he lives with his wife, art dealer Sadie Coles. Teller made his name in the late 1990s with fashion photographs that tore apart pseudo-glamour and revealed a raw beauty. His images range from nuanced melancholic landscapes to fast portraits dripping in personality, to twisted sexual projects with women like Charlotte Rampling and Vivienne Westwood. Despite, or because of, his uncompromising, often uncomfortable approach to imagemaking, Teller has become one of the most successful photographers of his generation.

What inspired your ICA show?
Juergen Teller: I had this column (of images and commentary) in a German newspaper called Die Zeit, published once a week. I made a book out of it and I will show that at the ICA. After a year and a half the column finished and I did some by myself to continue writing, so I will show a selection of that there.

Is there something you like about the image/text relationship?
Juergen Teller: I was very interested in showing my work to a broader public – Die Zeit reaches two million people. I felt like I was back in school, with homework to do every week. I started to really enjoy that, and was sometimes able to write two or three in a row when it was flowing. Otherwise on Monday I’d be thinking, ‘Fuck, what am I writing?’

Was narrative always been part of your work?
Juergen Teller: There is always a story to tell, some funny thing like when I shot OJ Simpson – strange, bizarre, boring, exciting things. It’s an adventure when you do a shoot. I believe I invite this openness with people where they do things for me, or tell me things.

Does that come down to what the camera can do?
Juergen Teller: It’s the thing itself. I wouldn’t dream of saying to Charlotte Rampling, ‘Can I kiss you and fondle your breasts?’ You know? But in this adventure we’re doing with the camera, you’re making a fairytale, a visual fairytale...

It gives you permission to step outside what’s accepted?
Juergen Teller: To a certain extent, yeah.

When you shoot, are you trying to break down how people present themselves to you? your work can feel very exposing.
Juergen Teller: I don’t think so. What should I break down? I think my strength is to act instinctively, really quickly, on what I believe, what I see in this person. A proper portrait. I wouldn’t dream of doing something inappropriate for that person. I guess I make the person comfortable around me.

Does the idea for a series come first, or is it more experimental?
Juergen Teller: My work has become more project-based – there’s an idea and it’s executed. I did this thing, Irene im Wald (‘Irene in the Forest’). I wanted to photograph the forest where I grew up. My mum (Irene) came along – that wasn’t my idea. My mum was very active about it, liked the idea of drooping around at home in the forest so she came to walk with me.

There’s a saturated brightness to your images. what attracts you to that?
Juergen Teller: I have no idea. I take it very seriously, the photographic craft. It’s a long process. I’ve been working with my printer for more than 12 years. Every single photograph, every piece of work is so individual. So I’m standing there in this stupid dark basement working on every image, whether it is an advertising job or whatever.

That’s a really unusual attention to the process.
Juergen Teller: It’s important to spend time with your work. That’s when you see it, when you have a feeling. Rather than just digital photographs on the computer and then it’s gone. It’s something more physical.

Do you see your advertising work as an extension of your artworks?
Juergen Teller: It is very different – obviously nobody tells me to walk in the forest and take pictures, that just comes from my mind. I have a responsibility towards the client to photograph the clothes. I try to make it believable to myself. It started with Marc Jacobs. What is an advertisement? What can fashion advertising be? For us it should not be just, ‘Here are the lovely clothes.’ We were much more interested in the human being who might be interested in the clothes and an element of excitement, of fun, when they’re wearing them. It started with Sonic Youth. (Marc) was friends with them and Kim Gordon was very excited about this collection so she wore his clothes on stage, on tour. I liked their music, so it made perfect sense to photograph them onstage with the clothes for a campaign. More an inspiration thing of what the brand Marc Jacobs can be, rather than pure product placement.

What do you find interesting about people whose profession is being in front of a camera?
Juergen Teller: I do like people who are open or I can go on a journey with, and sometimes with actors it’s difficult because there’s a total gap between what they would do for a film role and how they see themselves in photographs. In a way it’s very easy and pleasurable to work with models, because they’re a blank slate and you can do whatever you want with them.

Are you interested in redefining what is or could be beautiful?
Juergen Teller: Certain people think I make people hard-looking, or make them harsh or don’t retouch, but I think everybody looks really attractive in my photographs. You feel a sort of sympathy I have for them, or I try to get to the core of the thing. I’m just interested in the person, what they do and how they really look. I’m not really interested in – intellectually or as a heterosexual man – some sort of airbrushed, bimbo thing. I just cannot relate to it and I do not think they look prettier or better. I really like it when someone is confident within themselves. I’ve used partly older women in campaigns or, let’s not say not so pretty but interesting-looking, or even myself who’s more overweight. But I’m happy with myself and I think that’s important.

Are you inspired by other images?
Juergen Teller: For me cinema is very important. I grew up with television, then as a teenager you discover cinema.

If cinema was your teen years, when did the camera become part of you?
Juergen Teller: I was very much influenced by my older cousin. He’s two years older and a very enthusiastic copy photographer. We went to Italy on a holiday. We were camping and I was sleeping in his Citroën 2CV – sometimes in the car, sometimes in the tent. It was getting dark and we hadn’t found a place where we could sleep. The sun was going down a tree and it was pretty but I was like, ‘What the fuck is he doing putting up his tripod? Come on, it’s getting dark, we’ve got to fucking put this tent up.’ He was like, ‘No no no, in ten minutes the light is right.’ I got bored and said, ‘Let’s have a look at this thing.’ I looked through this square and thought, ‘I want to be a photographer.’ Looking through this lens for the first time of my life and actually actively seeing something in it. It opened my eyes.

Your personal projects seem to really focus on your autobiography...
Juergen Teller: That’s what I have, you know? I don’t want to be a photo reporter and I don’t want to steal pictures either. I want to be present in my life. You spend so much time with your children and they mean something to me, and that’s why I want to photograph them. That doesn’t mean I do photo reportage about my life. It’s totally different, it’s more a fairytale.

Photography by Juergen Teller, courtesy of the artist

Juergen Teller: WOO! opens tonight Jan 23–Mar 17 at the ICA, London