In a career that has spanned over twenty years, Juergen Teller has skillfully blurred the distinction between art, advertising and portraiture and is now one of the world's most admired and in-demand photographers. Ponystep met up with the visionary who's honesty is never in question, no matter which side of the camera he finds himself on...
In the basement of a Dalston printing lab on a chilly Friday afternoon, Juergen Teller is revising his travel arrangements. The world-renowned photographer has spent the last few hours developing the images from a recent Paris assignment, and he methodically bounces a tennis ball against the scuffed white walls of the corridor while he waits for updates on his planned trip to New York the following day. This is a man who once posed naked and fearless in the snow for one of his beguiling self-portraits, but it seems that even he may have to admit defeat in the face of the monumental blizzards currently battering the east coast of America. The news is of severe weather warnings and cancelled flights. He sighs and smiles resignedly, bounces some more, then steps away from the lightbox.
We are meeting to talk about Woo!, his current show at the ICA, which appears to have suffered no such setbacks, meteorological or otherwise. His first solo London show in nine years has been a resounding hit, packing them in to the two floors of the gallery while also generating a stir within the UK press. A fair few column inches have been devoted to the centrepiece of exhibition: the three enormous portraits of a very regal, very naked Vivienne Westwood taken three years ago. The photographs of the fashion legend and long-term collaborator bear the hallmarks inherent in much of Teller’s work; they are playful, intimate and graphic. His elegant subject is rendered stark and overexposed, with Westwood’s ruby lips, porcelain skin, and bright orange pubic hair taking a direct hit from the merciless flash of Teller’s Contax G2.
for me, the photo is about the experience as well as the image. So, you have to believe that there is something worth photographing in the first place
Elsewhere, the exhibition conjures up more arresting portraiture of luminaries such as Kurt Cobain and Cerith Wyn Evans. Also included is the infamous image of Victoria Beckham, or rather her legs, splayed from within an enormous carrier bag, lifted from one of Teller’s many advertising campaigns for Marc Jacobs (who also “does a Vivienne” in the show, though preferring to utilise a desk to conceal his modesty). Haunting English landscapes also sit beside autobiographical works featuring Teller’s wife, the contemporary art dealer Sadie Coles, and their two children.
Any visitors who spent time during the 90s poring over copies of style bibles The Face and i-D will experience an immediate, visceral rush when stepping into the ICA’s reading room which has been transformed into a giant walk-in Teller scrapbook. The space is plastered from floor-to-ceiling with extracted full-length mag pages that depict his seminal pictorial spreads alongside early advertising campaigns for the likes of Miu Miu, Yves Saint Laurent and Helmut Lang. It’s a fascinating DIY overview of Teller’s career. Though you probably shouldn’t call it a retrospective. “In a way that is almost something you have when you’re dead!” Juergen laughs over the soft industrial hum of a printer. ”That room seems to exist in a very strange moment. There is a lot of history going on in such a small space”.
Yes, there’s a whole lot of history going on all over the place in Woo! Not just the history of one man’s life and work over the past twenty years, but also a beautiful snapshot of the pared-down aesthetic that has flourished within art, portraiture, and advertising during that time. Today, one of its most celebrated pioneers is settling down on a sofa opposite an unplugged, folorn Lime-Lite jukebox – tennis ball at the ready – to discuss an exhibition like no other…
Andreas Soteriou: Was the curation of Woo! an enjoyable experience?
Juergen Teller: Yes, and I was involved in all of it. Gregor Muir (executive director of the ICA) asked me to do it a year ago, and since then I have been thinking about the whole thing. I kept going back to the gallery numerous times, getting to know the space. I built a model in my studio with miniature pictures to represent the scale of the photos in the show. Then I started playing around with it and thinking about what would be good as an entrance piece to the show. Gregor was very keen that there should not only be new, unseen work but also a sense of certain iconic pictures, which is how he puts it. Now, I didn’t mind that, either. It didn’t start out in my thoughts as a retrospective at all.
AS: The Westwood portraits certainly have an immediate impact. Though the heart and soul of the exhibition appears to be the autobiographical photos of yourself and your family. In particular Irene im Wald; the photostory of your mother and stepfather walking through the woods. Your accompanying text on growing up in Germany and then moving to London are so personal and honest, they almost read like diary entries…
JT: For me, that was the most important part too. I showed them in an exhibition that I had at a German gallery last September and they published a supplement with the pictures plus the writing. I thought very hard about where I should put that piece in Woo! You know, should it be in a smaller room upstairs? Then I realised that it worked very well in the corridor on the lower floor. As a visitor you walk past it from the entrance towards the cafe and then upstairs… It fitted in very nicely, because the photos are relatively small and intimate. And the theme of a walk through the woods mirrors the experience. I wanted to make sure that the images of more familiar subjects like Kurt Cobain, Vivienne Westwood and Bjork weren’t the only things that people would see. My mother in the woods is obviously a more personal subject and it is important because it sets the tone of the exhibition.
AS: They do provide a nice counterpoint to the celebrity portraits. Though even those have that similar sense of intimacy.
JT: Well, some of those are examples of something that has emerged over the long-term. I have known Vivienne for twenty years, at least. I have worked with her on and off during that time, and more intensively over the last four years, I guess, on her campaigns.
AS: There is a strong sense of ideology in those advertising campaigns, which is quite unusual for most fashion-related advertising. There is the theme of her and her husband Andreas as a partnership, combined with political comment on subjects such as consumerism and waste.
JT: Well, that idea of the partnership always made perfect sense to me. It always had to be her and him, together. She is the perfect spokesperson and I am very fond of her personally. Everything is very direct with her and I have come to enjoy spending that time with her and sharing our ideas. That personal connection isn’t necessarily essential to making a project work, but with them it is definitely there. It was my choice to do the triptych portraits of her that are in the exhibition. They existed in a smaller size too but we changed it.
AS: Your children also feature prominently in the exhibition. Was it an easy decision to include those personal family photos?
JT: My children are a big part of my work and a big part of my life. It was very clear to me that the exhibition should include a picture of my daughter and my son, for sure.
AS: Many of those photos were taken in the Suffolk countryside…
JT: Yes, we are renting a little place there. We go in the summer, and then on school holidays. It does feel like home, but we don’t go there as often as we want to. My wife is busy, I am busy, and my son is part of a football team that play every Sunday. All those things make it more difficult to go there.
With the pictures I take of myself , my wife and children or whatever, I think that I offer a vivid and real sense of how I’m living
AS: Would it be unthinkable to go there and not take photos?
JT: Oh, I do that, definitely. Quite a bit, especially when I am tired. It is a super place to relax.
AS: So there isn’t that mindset of having a duty to always be prepared to document something with a camera?
JT: No, I don’t really think about that. Though sometimes the unexpected can present itself and I will be ready. Like yesterday, I was on my way back from Paris on the Eurostar. This girl came up to me and said how much she enjoyed and liked my work. Eventually I recognised her, it was Anja Rubik, the Polish supermodel. I’d never worked with her, never met her, but I thought she was beautiful, really striking. Then she was in the same carriage as me, and I thought about it for half an hour then realised that we could take some photos there and then.
AS: In the carriage?
JT: Yes, and the Eurostar is actually an excellent location. She was totally open to the idea. We even ended up taking some nude photos in the toilet! We just went in and locked the door. The photos were developed today and they turned out fantastic.
AS: Many of your portraits seem to be a result of a similarly direct and intimate approach, such as your work with Charlotte Rampling.
JT: Yes, Charlotte and I originally worked on a portrait for Liberacion, many years ago. Now I can say anything to her and there is a feeling of trust. I’d photographed her numerous times and then we became friends.
AS: Those portraits of the two of you together seem to reflect the genuine progression of a very real and close relationship. In many of them Charlotte seems warm but slightly guarded, while you are quite relaxed and well, naked. Do you still see each other?
JT: Yes. Now we meet and have dinner or drinks together and don’t really talk about work.
AS: Are there any unexplored ideas or areas of photography that you’d like to approach?
JT: (After a long pause) Well, I want to explore digital photography, for sure. Whatever that means! (laughs) I have done one digital photo, a self-portrait which is in the show.
AS: The one taken with an iPhone? To me, that was actually the most shocking photo in the exhibition. Or the most unexpected, at least. Was it important that it should be included?
JT: For me, it was. My wife thought, “Oh no, no, no. Don’t put that in!” (laughs)
AS: You have become a familiar face yourself through your self-portraiture. Do you enjoy that process?
JT: Well, it goes in phases. Sometimes you forget about it or it doesn’t feel right. Other times you don’t feel well so you don’t want to do it, or you feel very well so you don’t think about it. Or you just might not be interested in the subject of yourself. But when you are, you take hold of the idea and explore it.
AS: Are you surprised that more photographers don’t explore it in the same way?
JT: Well, there aren’t that many… There have been times when I just got so bored of contacting other people about work and all the complications that go with it. There are so many different stages to the process and it can become tiring. When I am taking photos of myself, well, I am always around and always available! (laughs)
AS: Have you learned to accept those complications as an unavoidable part of the process?
JT: Yes, eventually you understand that it is just simple logistics and what you need to go from A to B. Things go wrong, diaries fall apart. A small problem can put a stop to a whole project. But then other jobs can fall into place really quickly or seem effortless and you still get a great result. Like yesterday, you would never sit down and plan to get Anja Rubik over from New York and on to the Eurostar. The organisation for that would be a fucking nightmare!
AS: And there would have been no way that she would have woken up yesterday morning and expected to have had her photograph taken by Juergen Teller a few hours later.
JT: That’s what it is. There was no expectations. In a typical scenario, there would have been other people involved, hair and make-up, this and that, blah, blah, blah… Instead there was just the two of us, we both had our guard down. It just happened and here we are, developing the pictures and they are beautiful.
AS: Could you ever imagine yourself in a similar scenario but without a camera to hand? The frustration of losing the opportunity forever…
JT: Yes, that could easily happen because I don’t often carry a camera around with me. I only had it yesterday because I was returning from a job in Paris. For me the thing is: experience the moment, and then re-create it, in a way. If you have to.
AS: Would you go along with the view that the internet and new technology has opened up the world of photography and made it more democratic?
JT: Well, for me, the photo is about the experience as well as the image. So, you have to believe that there is something worth photographing in the first place.
AS: I suppose it is important to understand which of those experiences should remain private and which should be shared. It’s like your articles that appeared in ZEITMagazin. By sharing even the more mundane details and stories of your shoots, it gave the images greater context. Instead of taking away their mystery, it actually made them more powerful and interesting.
JT: Yes, it felt like I was sharing experiences that were important to me. And for some of the people in the photographs, also.
AS: You have been very honest about your relationship with the world of fashion in the past, saying ‘I love it and I hate it. I need it, for sure’. Is that sense of conflict still present?
JT: Well, I enjoy it, I really do, but I find it very, very difficult. Working in fashion involves a lot of compromises, and to a certain extent, I understand those compromises. I mean, they pay me a lot of money, but you have to deliver for them. And that’s not always the way you want to do things, you know? I mean, I do understand it, I know that people choose to wear clothes not only to cover themselves because they are cold. They do it because fashion is an enjoyable thing, and to be involved in all that is really great. But sometimes it grinds you down when you are doing it so much. And to say something new, instead of just cataloguing something… Well, that’s quite difficult, you know?
AS: Does the level of trust from a long working relationship with someone like Marc Jacobs and Vivienne Westwood make it any easier?
JT: Well, yes and no. I mean, on the one hand, you’ve pulled something out of the bag so many times that it makes it more difficult. You have to come up with something else, something new. Sometimes I would say that it easier to work with a completely new designer, because the clothes are very different and the person’s ideas are very different. It is difficult to maintain a working relationship over many years. It is the same as with a personal relationship. That honeymoon with someone you meet can be very nice for the first month, but then on the long term, they get on your nerves. That’s how it is. Fashion is all about change.
AS: It’s interesting that certain famous names who wouldn’t usually align themselves to an advertising campaign are open to the idea of collaborating wih you and Marc Jacobs. People like Samantha Morton, Jarvis Cocker, Thurston Moore… Then, on the other end of the spectrum, people have credited the campaign with Victoria Beckham as the turning point when she first received some level of acceptance in the industry. Perhaps to those people you were saying something new?
JT: It is a subtle combination of something powerful; the kudos of the Marc Jacobs label that is known everywhere. It’s certainly appealing to those people. And my part helps too and so that double act becomes a powerful tool, for sure. But in the case of people like Jarvis and Samantha Morton, it comes from a personal angle also. For example, she wanted for the shoot to be in Nottingham, in her home town.
AS: Is there something about being invited into someone’s home or personal space with your camera that achieves a special result? For example, your work with Kate Moss, who you have been working with since she was 15. Over all those years, the photos that are probably the most memorable are the ones you have taken in her home. Whether in New York in the 90s, later on in London, or the recent one in the Cotswolds, which is included in Woo!…
JT: Well, in a lot of the cases it just makes sense to go to where they live. It gives you a grounding, something interesting. I don’t know if it makes them feel more comfortable, I mean, they could even be more guarded, because they don’t want to reveal too much of where they live, their own personal space. That’s possible too.
AS: Can you relate to that effort in some people to hold on to a little bit of privacy? Or are you always secretly hoping that a subject will just completely lose all their inhibitions?
JT: I do understand it. There is this Architecural Digest, or Elle Decoration, or whatever it is… Our house in London is designed by David Adjaye, and there has been numerous requests of having it photographed and I would never do that. I would never want the public to see my house in that kind of detail, do you know what I mean? With the pictures I take of myself , my wife and children or whatever, I think that I offer a vivid and real sense of how I’m living. I am happy to do that, and to keep on doing that.
Juergen Teller : Woo! is on at ICA
From 23 January 2013 to 17 March 2013
11am – 6pm
The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH