Juergen Teller is a name that needs no introduction, after all he is one of the core 90’s protagonists that shifted the focus of fashion photography and shaped it into how we see things today. Redefining glamour without knowing it and reflecting the ideals of a generation, Ponystep met the man that bumped a Contax into the hand of many a youth at his West London studio. Discussion of Victoria Beckham, Nirvana and his legacy ensued, as well as that of, erm, table tennis...
Dean Mayo Davies: Can we start by talking about one of your latest projects, your retrospective book of Marc Jacobs advertising? Obviously you share one of your strongest creative relationships with him. What led to wanting to collect the eleven years, 1998-2009, in one place?
Juergen Teller: It’s as simple as just wanting to do it. It’s actually been three years since we started thinking about it…
You did a volume on the Cindy Sherman images before this…
Yeah, that project we did three photo sessions for. One in New York and one in London for the advertising. Then we did another one in London for the book as we enjoyed ourselves so much. The second used another set of clothes which weren’t at the original shoot – as time passed by they gave us more ideas. Cindy was kind enough to fly over for that as we’d just had our new baby. We thought ‘we should do a book about this, this is great’.
…And it turned into a project.
The story behind the Marc Jacobs book project is that I always thought it would be a good idea to have a compilation of the whole, of everything. First of all it’s extremely rare that a photographer works with a fashion designer so closely for such a long time. Most fashion ads – if you say Gucci or Prada, whatever – have the same pictures everywhere all season (not to say there is anything wrong with that). OK, it varies when they have sunglasses or need to show shoes or handbags, but they have maybe 3 or 4 pictures running as ads for one season. With a Marc Jacobs campaign things are different; it could be one photograph or many. For example when we used Roni Horn for Marc Jacobs Men’s, there was just one picture that nailed it.
With the can of Budweiser in her hand…
Yes. That was enough even though it was just one shot. But with Kristen McMenamy, there were many more pictures – let’s say we used fifteen of them. You might not have seen all of them together. And some people might not see Marc by Marc ads in youth magazines. Next week I go to Germany for print, and two weeks ago I spent time colour-correcting all the images. It will be a 576 page book.
Again through Steidl, who you’ve worked closely with for quite some time. Difficult question, I know, but do you have a favourite campaign?
That is a really difficult question. [Laughs]. Normally I couldn’t answer that, I find that every time I try to push myself to do something exciting, as everybody does, it feels like I go on an adventure or journey. If I go to Nashville to shoot Harmony Korine, that’s great for me, going to different places. Or to be in a bedroom and have a party with William Eggleston and Charlotte Rampling, it’s very exciting that I can orchestrate that; they hadn’t met beforehand and kind of fell in love with each other. If you’re able to bring people together, that’s a thrill. When I did the self- portraits with Charlotte, because I was able to kiss her and fondle her breasts, that was my favourite on a personal level. [Laughs].
[Laughs]. Was it your idea to do the Beckham campaign? I think that one is quite sardonic, whereas all the rest are more organic. For me, the Victoria Beckham one stands out – this paen to/ pastiche of celebrity culture. It’s totally different.
That one started at the fashion show in September [September 2007]. It was the top of the whole celebrity craziness, and Marc Jacobs became so extremely popular with these celebrities – everybody wanted to go to the show, the front row was like god-knows-who-they-all-were. And Victoria Beckham came, possibly for the first time. There were tons of paparazzi, tons of bodyguards, it was insane. She was wearing this kind of breast-showing, pumped-up thing – there was Victoria Beckham being sexy. People, the next morning in newspapers, were hailing Marc’s show as the new sexuality, this new-found sexuality – but I’m not saying that, that all passes me by! The next morning Marc called me up and said what about Victoria Beckham? I said ‘I don’t even have to think about it, yes!’.
Then it dawns on you what you’ve got yourself into, that it was a bit more complicated. It would’ve been really easy to be a bit more crass with her and set her up, but I didn’t want to do that. It took a long time through preparation and it was very important that she was involved in it all, that she was laughing with us…
The bag shot symbolises it, I think, with her legs flailing in the air…
She totally knew what she was doing. The only problem was with the lawyers and agents and photo approval, which Marc was fantastic about. He said to me ‘Here’s Victoria’s number, you have to charm her! They want photo approval and I don’t know what to say’. But she was very keen to do it obviously; I tried to explain myself, as much as I could, and for her to trust me, and that I would show her poloraids.
How collaborative is the casting usually?
It’s kind of ping-pong, a 50-50 conversation when Marc and I talk. Sometimes it’s instant but then sometimes it’s four long months and we can’t think of anything – we go back and forth and back and forth. It was Marc that called me with the idea for Cindy Sherman, I said ‘OK!’ and then thought ‘Oh god how the hell am I gonna do this?! That’s impossible’. She’d done Comme des Garçons ads and is involved with fashion in some sort of scenario – dressing up -with her own work. I thought ‘I’m gonna look like an idiot photographing her, it can’t work’. But she was fantastic on the telephone, we exchanged our books and kept talking to each other. I kinda thought one thing I’m good at – and I’ve noticed with her – is that she hardly ever looks into the camera. She’s not very direct often, especially in the film stills series. From there I realised she never interacts with anyone, so I started looking for an actor – ‘Should we have Gary Oldman or doodle-e- doo or should we get a model? No, that doesn’t make any sense.
I concluded it had to be me! That’s where the fun started. I would’ve fucked it up if I’d just photographed her, she would’ve done it so much better herself. So I had to bring humour to it and she certainly enjoyed herself….
That was it . Once I looked through this thing, the camera, I thought ‘Wow I wanna be a photographer’.
I think that’s why that one really clicked. Look at how – through clothes – there is a duality in her practice, plus adding the fact you move between fashion and art…
I didn’t tell Marc that I was going to be in it! He saw the images and was just falling off his chair and laughing his head off. When it came out in American Vogue, I thought ‘My god, who’s gonna buy that? This is ridiculous!’
Do you find it difficult to balance your art with fashion? Or is it all part of one big ongoing story for you, something you don’t really think about?
I find everything difficult. And I find everything really easy – sometimes certain things become fluid and then others not so much. I like all the commercial restraint, all the theatre and all the fashion because it gives me a platform to create things. It’s exciting. There’s money there for you to produce something without being dependent on your art gallery to finance your production – that’s restricting too. If it makes sense and I want to go to Domenico or Honolulu with a model, it’s exciting how I can make the idea across. Do you know what I mean? They have the resources to help me get that.
How have you adapted to having your work in galleries and having your photographs bought? You’ve said in the past that you didn’t really want your pictures sold…
That was a very long time ago, I was very, very young. I had this lovely picture of Sinéad O’Connor at a show in Japan and these funny people wanted to buy it. I thought ‘You’re not gonna get it!’ It felt weird. [Laughs]. But I’ve changed my views on that over time…
You’re now working with Vivienne Westwood too, on imagery. How is that?
I’ve known her for a long time and did numerous portraits of her perhaps fifteen years ago. Then three years ago, i-D asked me to photograph her…
At her house, I remember…
And I’ve always really liked Andreas. He’s a very charming, kind man, extremely good-looking and everything. So it became obvious I was going to work with them. The magazine shoot was so much fun and it turned out really successfully; we all liked it and kept in touch. I said ‘I would like to do your campaign. But you have to be in the pictures because you’re your best representative, it’s the most obvious thing’. It’s the first time I ever approached someone about working on their advertising. I’ve done it for four seasons and I like their enthusiasm as well as the funny world Vivienne occupies; the theatre of the clothing she produces. She’s still independent and a decision can be made very quickly. Of course it’s not something you’re gonna get rich from, but I’m in control of the image. The same with Marc, you know, I can more or less control, but not in a negative way. They take my advice of how an ad should be seen and they’re very open and appreciative. Vivienne and Andreas are not afraid of doing something that, when you talk it out, might sound absolutely stupid. Doing something that you can’t quite explain, they’re open for a journey and that’s exciting working with them.
Isn’t that why you can take the images, put them in a gallery, put them in a book and they still work? You’re changing the concept of what a campaign can be. It’s not like publicity for a megabrand where a highly-controlled studio with generic models limits the output of what it can ever become…
The funny thing is there’s still so much product in the ads, although it is natural not forced. Of course you can have these sort of faceless, retouched 20-year-old models – and there’s nothing at all wrong with them – but I find it refreshing there can also be a 65-year-old woman carrying things, feeling proud of her body and what she is doing. I’m very keen to support that in any way or form.
Let’s talk about your personal portfolio. You’ve produced some really striking video pieces – I’m thinking in particular of the film where you’re watching football; Germany playing in the World Cup. Are you keen to explore moving image further?
Only if it comes, if it seems to make sense. It’s not conscious at all. I toyed with it a few years ago, but at the moment I’m not thinking about it. That football thing, that came from photographs
I’d done before. I suddenly thought ‘Oh my god. Germany is in the final of the World Cup, it might not ever happen again in my lifetime. I have to do something about it’.
It’s a really confrontational piece…
I couldn’t even fucking watch it, it was awful!
When you were growing up in Germany you were expected to go into the family business, which was making violins…
My family just does bridges for violins. And I was – not in the family business but in the same village doing bows, that’s right.
How did you get from that to shooting for style magazines in London? Were you interested in photography as a child?
No… I went on a sort of a health-holiday – or whatever you want to call it – after I had an asthma attack, the doctor sent me on an ‘air change’. And we went to Tuscany, my cousin and I, he was a keen hobby photographer. I couldn’t understand it or what he was doing, but it was on that holiday I got excited about it. That was it . Once I looked through this thing, the camera, I thought ‘Wow I wanna be a photographer’. Then I went on to study photography in Munich for two years, before coming to London. In London I started doing portraits, of musicians and record covers.
Didn’t you do some of the first shots of Nirvana? And go on tour with them?
That was in ‘91, yes. That was something… I didn’t even know who they were. Actually nobody knew, I asked the music guys from The Face about it: ‘Never heard of it’. It was for Details, which was different from what it is now, and they wanted to send me off with these guys with long hair and ripped jeans; ‘It’s gonna be a big thing’. I thought ‘Fuck it!’ – I was really low on money, which was one of the reasons I took that job, but also it gave me a perfect way of seeing a friend in Berlin, seeing my cousin in Hamburg and then going to Frankfurt, on to Munich and ending up at my Mum’s. I met the band at the airport in London and immediately thought ‘My god there is something special here, totally’. That was quite a memorable trip, really good.
Do you think working with Venetia on The Face and i-D really built your ideology? Or was it something that was in your head anyway, that you wanted to take these kind of photographs? This new generation, Kate Moss…
I don’t know what was in my head then! [Laughs]. I mean certainly there were things that interested me that I wanted to photograph. And that’s still how it is now. At the beginning I was really suspect about fashion photography and what that even is, but with Venetia it seemed to make so much sense. We found this girl or boy which we could identify with or found exciting, the way they got dressed up, not like a clown but to a believable extent. That was cool. There was a force of excitement there, that’s how it started. It seemed to make sense. And it was extremely naïve – it’s very, very different nowadays when a young photographer starts if he wants to start in that commercial venue. Everything is so much faster now, so many magazines – back then it was The Face and i-D. No Purple, no Self Service, no AnOther Magazine. So it was very slow and naïve – now people just don’t seem to have any time anymore, they do one shoot and they suddenly think ‘I can do a Prada ad’ or something like that. Which of course they can, but you know what I mean… [Laughs].
You were part of that generation or movement that built fashion into what it is now. Before that, in the 80’s, it was all about the super-super glam. You brought another angle to things, another viewpoint, which has ridden out since. How do you feel about that as a legacy? Do you acknowledge it?
I just see it as a matter of fact, that I’m influential. I was and I still am, I just think about wanting to do good work. I don’t think about trends and I don’t even go out much. Each time I’m really concentrating and taking it really seriously, as silly or stupid the picture could be, I take it very seriously that that’s what I want to do. I don’t think strategically about doing this or that, I work a lot on instinct. I just want to do good work. That’s it. I wasn’t trying to make a commentary on fashion, I was doing what felt natural.
It’s something that’s more transcendental in terms of experience, isn’t it? That’s the crux of it.
It was beyond fashion. It was more like we were interested in this girl and that was it, how we can make a great picture. And then Vogue came along or Katherine Hamnett and the other things. First of all there was Kate Moss but then you get confronted by Claudia Schiffer, Stephanie Seymour and you either take it or leave it. They’re all pretty exciting.
Are there any shoots that remain special moments for you?
The Kristen McMenamy shoot which got commissioned for Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine. That was a pretty liberating shoot. She needed to be liberated and I needed to be liberated and we kind of fused together, doing pictures we felt were right. We pushed along and they weren’t like the pictures everybody else was doing. It did allowed me to believe in myself and to just feel from the heart. When you’re young you’re insecure and when you’re successful at a young age within this dangerous commercial world – it’s hard to be resilient against some commercial visions. You have to stick to your guns and have a clear vision yourself. Or even if you do a record cover for a band, you know, they say ‘What about this?’
Like when you shot the Elastica sleeve?
No, Elastica was easy, that was fun. What I’m saying is there’s a client and you have responsibility to the client. And with Kristen, we just let it go… That was important for me.
Were Süddeutschen Zeitung surprised when you handed them the pictures? [Editor’s note: The portfolio featured the now-iconic shot of a naked McMenamy, cigarette in mouth, ‘Versace’ scrawled between her breasts in lipstick].
They thought it was excellent. It’s a supplement in the manner of The Guardian ‘Weekend’, and they’d do a special artist’s issue and a couple of times a year a fashion issue. Otherwise it’s incomparable to English newspapers, they would never dream of doing anything like that.
There is real intensity to your more personal pictures, the self-portraiture and the photographs relating to your family history. Do you think sometimes people miss the humour in your work?
Do I care, you know? [Laughs]. I just do these pictures for myself and whether they say this or that about my work, what can I do about it? The only thing I can say is that the right people understand it. I mean a lot of people have a superficial eye – they are interested in culture but maybe they can’t grasp what’s the beauty of a Mark Rothko painting…
Which brings us to another point. Do you have influences you can pick out? Or do you try and shy away from them?
When I was younger I used to think ‘I’ve gotta see this movie’ or ‘I’ve gotta go to this thing’. If it was something everyone was talking about I’d think it was good for your education or as a reference! But that concerns me less-and-less. Now it’s like ‘Well, that was good’ and that’s enough. It could well have been because I came from the woods, the countryside and was starved to death on that level. I was growing up only with television, so I’d be sucking everything up like a sponge – ‘Oh my god there’s i-D magazine, what is this?!’. [Laughs].
I miss seeing movies, but with having two kids, busy working etc, something has to give. Of course I look at shows, books and read, but films are pretty important to me. You know I thought I learned a lot having this table tennis lesson yesterday…
I did wonder why you had that set-up over there…
It actually goes beyond just learning table tennis. I played with the number one of junior table tennis in Europe, Darius Knight, and I found his opinion really interesting. The juniors had their budget slashed because of the Olympics and who got the money was the stupid rowing people! I don’t have anything against rowing, but it’s just power. Ping pong is a skill! Anyway, he’s so determined and he’s using his own money to go to China – OK, he has deals here and there but normally there would be total sponsorship. The way he’s doing it, it feels how I was when I was young; ‘I need to get out of here and do this’. I felt like I learned something from him.
It’s something else when you get inspired by meeting someone, a certain personality. For me there were three on another level: Katrin Cartlidge, the actress, Charlotte Rampling and William Eggleston. They’ve all got absolute integrity. With Eggleston for example… How do I put it? You felt his presence, of him being just himself. He doesn’t move an inch away from what he is. It’s quite incredible. He took on one commission, one of the few things he’s ever taken on, where he photographed a wedding. He just laid on the grass and photographed the sky. OK it’s not about being influenced, but it’s great when you meet someone and become inspired.
Originally Posted 4/8/2009