He’s shot Nirvana, Marc Jacobs and Vivienne Westwood, and now, Juergen Teller takes Raquel Zimmermann to his hometown to play his imaginary girlfriend.
Groundbreaking no less, Juergen Teller’s work as an artist and fashion photographer has helped reshape our visual language. Teller is without doubt one of the most prolific photographers of our age – influential, unique and highly imitated.
Born 1964 and raised in Germany, Teller comes from a family of bridge builders. Growing up, he lived next to a forest and, isolated from much of the usual lashings of popular culture, he would take himself on adventures among the trees when he wasn’t watching TV. Today, he wakes at six every morning in Suffolk, where he and his family are renting a house and spending much of the summer, so he can be among the landscape and the agriculture and see the clouds move. All this inspires him and has played a formative part in his unique aesthetic.
“Growing up, my visual language certainly didn’t come from middle class educated parents who go to art museums. Certainly not. I come from the countryside. I grew up next to a forest. My great grandfather and my grandfather and my father and my uncle were all bridge makers. Everyone in my family was working with wood. I don’t know, I can’t quite explain it, but for some reason or another a lot of my photographs are somehow brown.” This brown is the hue which has served as one of the most notable qualities to Teller’s body of work. It’s this, alongside his distinct attitude towards fashion, that has set him apart from the high-glamour aesthetic preceding him in the 80s.
A member of the 90s fashion photography movement born from grunge, heroin chic and a dissatisfaction with unrealistic consumerism and image infatuation in magazines, Teller – along with collaborator Venetia Scott – helped shift the paradigm. Their use of low-fi locations and nonchalant, bare-faced models personified a punk mentality; their insistence on creating narratives and worlds that went beyond shopping and the latest trends in blouses or pants saw Teller revitalise a generation in such iconic publications such as The Face and i-D.
The New York Times columnist Cathy Horyn once described Teller as a great conversationalist and she isn’t wrong. Teller is candid and lucid in his manner on the phone much like the photographs he has become so infamous for taking. “I think life is too short and you live so many conventions that society puts into one’s living that you should make up your own morality of what is right and what is wrong and live your life really truly by your own standards. People say to me, ‘You can’t do that’ and ‘This is too much’ and, you know what, fuck it. You should really do what you want to do.” Teller’s irreverence for conforming is visually translated and apparent in his images in the notable way he marries the refined with the unrefined and in the unnerving contradictions these pairings then propose. Think of any one of the images born from the 11 years he has solidly shot the advertising campaigns for friend Marc Jacobs’ eponymous brand that – in spite of whether you deem them appropriate or not – have never failed to be utterly memorable. How could one forget the image of Victoria Beckham’s fake-tanned legs donned with the shoes of the season hanging crudely out of a crumpled MJ shopping tote? Faceless yet instantly recognisable, all that may have once quantified her – the season’s shoes and her celebrity status – Teller reframes for the viewer and makes as disposable as the paper bag she hangs from. One can only imagine that it would take great humility and humour on all parts to conceive such an image yet alone take part in their practice, but Teller always brings it back to having an adventure. “I am very happy working. I’m very excited of having an idea and putting people together and making an adventure together and doing something which comes out of nonsense, out of a funny idea, and then when you speak it out loud, it sounds really abstract or stupid but then when you do it, it is actually a lot of fun. I like to do the unexpected things and I like to have fun.”
Teller’s most recent personal work with supermodel and muse Raquel Zimmermann saw him returning to his mother’s home in Bubenreuth, Germany, a place where he is most inspired, to indulge in his teenage fantasies. “Raquel was like the kind of girlfriend as a teenager I never had. Blonde hair and slightly hippy-ish; the kind of look I always envisaged as a teenager I would have as a girlfriend and, somehow, it never turned out like that. I always had girls with brown hair or this and that, but never like Raquel. But in my imagination when I was younger, I always thought I would have THAT type of a girlfriend. I’d been working at my mum’s anyway for my own work and I didn’t know exactly what type of pictures I would like to take there, but it was a very strong instinct that I wanted to do things there. I wanted to do it in certain rooms and I was sure I wanted to do it in the forest. I very much depend on the person I photograph though and Raquel really embraced all of that. So we spent five days there. My mum was cooking and I showed her the place and we went to the forest and we had a fantastic time and that was that.”
The images born from Teller’s trip home are equally modern as they are nostalgic – allowing the viewer a glimpse into Teller’s teenage mind and imagination fully realised in all its absurdity and playfulness. Introspective, the project also saw Teller work with his own self image and character come into play alongside that of his make-believe confidante largely through nudity, abstract circumstances and, of course, self portraits. All of which have been reoccurring themes in Teller’s body of work.Of these themes, Teller says, “Nudity is the most natural form of how you are. I really got more interested in nudes when I got tired of photographing models and actors and actresses where you had to deal with all their neurosis and longing. And as I am doing a lot of fashion photographs, I am very used to clothes and what they do and what that means, and how everything you wear means something in the world. Whether you have a certain fashion sense or whether you are dressed down or whatever you are. When I first started to want to explore self-portraits, I kind of wanted to feel how it feels to be photographed by me; how it looks and what it does. But I wanted it to be very pure; I didn’t want to have any code of clothes because that would mean something. I wanted to be naked, nude in a double sense. Naked in terms of naked and naked in terms of my soul in a way.”
When Teller talks about his influences, it is clear to see how they have helped him form his understanding of what is important to him with his work and how he has projected himself forward without losing sight of this. “In terms of photographers, I have always admired [Nobuyoshi] Araki and William Eggleston as they fully live their lives how they want; they really do what they want to do and I really appreciate that. I learnt a lot from those people who are friends of mine. And no, I don’t mean influenced directly, in terms of the photographs they do, but in how they live their lives and create their work – that is very inspirational to me.
Never one to stop working, Teller’s recent projects and collaborations has seen him photographing the magician David Blaine and writing a weekly column for the respected German journal Die Zeit. Indeed, there is something to be said for someone who is always and only true to themselves. Conviction they call it. Indulgent others perhaps may say. Either way, there is something worth celebrating in this. Teller lives his own life like this. He takes pictures from this, and practices his art like this. He also asks it of his subject matter, and, what’s more it seems, manages to do so all in good humour. His advice? “Don’t be afraid of jumping in the cold water even if it is scary. The excitement you get afterwards is fantastic.”
Zimmermann is published by Steidl. www.steidlville.com.