Illustration by Milano Chow
Juergen Teller is, in large part, responsible for everything that you like about photography. He is a member of the holy trinity (along with Terry Richardson and Wolfgang Tillmans) that saved fashion photography from shittiness in the 1990s. Teller, totally unafraid to show humanity, ugliness, harshness, and humor in his photos, leavened the fashion-magazine standard of overblown sets and jacked-up, theatrical prom photos. His commercial work was, when it first appeared, a revelation.
But Teller blazed a trail which, unfortunately, was soon overrun by an unruly mob of jokers with battered Yashica T4 cameras and very little talent, and the mood and look that he and his contemporaries defined started to become a fashion- and portrait-photography cliché. Bright, bright flash? Check. Simple and “real” setting? Check. A general vibe of casual degradation or something like that? Check, check, check.
Teller, along with Richardson and Tillmans, avoided being overrun by their imitators with a novel and hard-to-duplicate strategy: They entered the gallery and museum worlds and became really successful artists. At first, Teller made art out of the weird things he witnessed in the fashion world. His 1999 book Go-Sees was a photo parade of casual model castings, taken at his studio’s front door in London. On the surface, it was just a bunch of girls. But what it really amounted to was one big portrait of all the different faces of pretty young women thrust into the fucking weird psychological space of making a living off their looks. Some were fun, some were awkward, some were creepy, and some were sublime. As Juergen Teller’s artwork progressed, he started going back into his German heritage and made photos out of it, as attested to by his brilliant recent book Nürnberg.
In a seemingly inexhaustible stream of new books, new exhibitions, and good ideas, Teller has become one of the most recognizable art photographers in the world now. And he still does fashion photography when he feels like it. He just makes it into weird and beautiful art at the same time.
Vice: Do you like the fashion industry? I know that’s a stupidly broad question, but I really want to know.
Juergen Teller: I do. For me it’s very light and fun and exciting. Like, I’m excited about these boots I’m wearing. I can’t wear the white, low-top Converse that I wore for 30 years anymore because they were hurting my feet and my lower back as I got older. So I’m wearing heels now. And I’m, like, really excited about it. These boots are transforming me. Suddenly I’m wearing a scarf and a Rolex watch and a jacket.
You’re a changed man.
I’m just getting lighter about fashion. It’s quite funny. But fashion, you know, it’s a huge business. If you have the right attitude and don’t take it too seriously, and if you can push the levels of commercialism, it can be fun.
What’s the right attitude?
Well, I just want to do what I want to do.
That’s pretty good. What kind of clothes do you like to wear the most? I’ve seen you a few times and you always have the most perfect worn-in old t-shirts on.
Actually, right now I’m smartening up a bit in my old age. [laughs] I’m really into these scarves from this old-fashioned British company called Turnbull and Asser. I have a cashmere scarf on right now. In orange!
Orange. That takes guts.
And I’m also getting into these Martin Margiela boots.
What are they, like motorcycle boots?
No, they’re Chelsea boots.
Beatle boots. Those are so British. What did you dress like when you were a teenager?
It hasn’t changed much. Back then it was still the washed-out t-shirts. I also wore quite a lot of pajama trousers.
That was like, a look that you wore out into the world?
Yeah. For years. I wore them to New York and everywhere. It sort of made sense at the time! [laughs]
As you got more involved in the fashion industry, did you start to appreciate design more? Did you start to pay attention to, I don’t know, silhouettes and who was doing what kind of stitching this season or whatever?
I was never interested in that stuff. But I would notice a girl who would be wearing a certain specific thing, and then that would make me interested in watching the girl. You know?
For sure. You would notice the way someone wore something not so much as what they were wearing.
It seems like there was kind of a radical turn in your artwork around the early 2000s. All of a sudden, you were all over your own photos and you were often naked. And not just naked, but like NAKED… Naked at your father’s grave, naked taking a shit in a snowy forest, and so on. These photos are pretty ballsy and people thought they were all kinds of things: Brave, funny…
Yes, stupid too. Why did you start making these photos?
I got mentally—and maybe also physically—tired of photographing all these people, whether it was models or actors or musicians. It’s quite draining to get involved in their psyches and work with them. I just thought, “Fucking hell, I can’t do it anymore. I should just photograph myself.”
Simple as that.
Yes. I think I also wanted to feel what it’s like to be photographed—to look at myself the way I’d looked at other people. So I worked myself really hard.
What is it about taking someone’s portrait that’s draining?
You need to listen to them and analyze them and deal with each person. It can be done in a very short time or it can take a long time, but it’s really quite draining to be involved with another human being and to get things out of them. It’s also hard when there’s vanity involved or when the photograph is really just going to be used to promote their product, like a film or a record.
Right, like a portrait for a magazine of a new band or a young actor…
And they just want to look young and airbrushed. It’s not about how they might really look. That can be the most draining thing. But I more or less gave that up.
You’re at a level where you can choose and reject assignments with no problem.
Now, when people ask to have their portrait done by me, they pretty much know what they’re running into. But if it’s a certain type of Hollywood actress asking me to photograph them, I say no. Or they know not to ask me anymore.
Maybe my favorite portrait you’ve taken is that one of Yves Saint Laurent where he looks really demonic.
He’s very fragile looking though. I did a campaign for them ten years ago or so when he was still involved in the company, and I still work for them.
You must get offered a scary amount of commercial and editorial work.
A lot, yeah. Most of it I turn down. Sometimes there is something interesting in an offer, and then I might take it. Like I did Patti Smith for the Observer, and I’m traveling to L.A. soon to photograph David Lynch. I’m quite keen to do that.
That’s a good one.
Yeah. So I don’t really see it as commercial work when I do commercial work. I see it more like… Let’s say somebody wants to do an independent film, right? They have to cast actresses and choose locations and all that. So I’m just using this stuff to create my own fantasies and dreams.
As if it were a movie you were putting together.
Like, for the new Marc Jacobs campaigns, I used William Eggleston. He’s in his late 60s and he’s a friend of mine. He’s such a stylish man. I wanted to photograph him for these ads as much as I just wanted to hang out with him. And he wanted to meet the actress Charlotte Rampling, who was already in the ads I’d been shooting, so we all got together in Paris and she ended up being in the pictures too. So that’s what I want to do. I just want to have a nice time, an interesting time.
The new women’s campaign is starring…
What a crazy choice.
She was Marc’s choice. I thought it was a really good idea. They had to shrink the clothes down to fit her.
When you’re hired by Marc Jacobs to do a campaign, how does the creative process work?
There are always a couple of people we’re thinking about who we’d like to use as models. I had wanted to use Charlotte, for example, for quite a while because I know her quite well.
And then the right time came and you did it. But how did it move on from being an ad campaign to being art?
I finished the campaign and then I was like, “Hang on a minute. I don’t really have to wear these silver underpants from Marc Jacobs just to shoot her.” The campaign I did for Marc with Cindy Sherman was similar. We kept on taking photos after the ads were done.
What’s the backstory for the Charlotte Rampling photos?
I thought it would be interesting to do self-portraits with Charlotte. I had no idea what it would be like, but I wanted to try it. And when I first talked to Charlotte about it, she said that she would normally never do any kind of advertising for any fashion client, but because it was me she was really pleased. She found it exciting.
It was more than just a fashion campaign though.
Right. It wasn’t just a photo of her wearing some of the clothes and a caption underneath that said, “Marc Jacobs, thank you very much.” We went on a journey together instead. I wanted to explore the idea of an intimate relationship between an older woman and me, a 40-year-old guy.
Was it sort of like acting?
Yeah. There were ideas set up, and then we tried them out on Polaroids and then moved on from there. For the book that we did after the campaign, there was a six-month period where I went to Paris on random weekends to shoot more pictures. Then I would go back to London, develop them, and have more ideas for things to do with her. Plus, she was losing weight and I was putting on weight, and I had a beard and then shaved it off.
You both physically changed a lot during it.
We had like five or six sessions. They were all shot in the same hotel, too.
So, to recap: You get to do whatever you want, and the people whose campaigns you do are always happy with the results. It’s pretty much utopia.
Nobody else does it. There’s no fashion designer who would do what Marc does with me. It’s a collaboration all the way through. For instance, it was Marc’s idea to use Winona Ryder and I was like, “That’s a great idea.” It was right when she was busted in an L.A. department store shoplifting Marc Jacobs clothing. That was the perfect moment to use her.
Was it hard to convince William Eggleston to be in a series of fashion ads?
Well, it took me a few days to make that phone call. I was too scared! But when I finally did, he said, “I’ll do anything for you.”
He’s an older photographer who inspired you. Are you aware of your influence on younger photographers?
I can see it, yeah. If it’s close to the bone, it’s really annoying. When it’s like a total rip-off…
You kind of get ripped off a lot.
Yeah. And then you think, “Oh god.” But the more it happens, the less you care.
What does a person have to do technically to copy you? How should one go about ripping off Juergen Teller?
[laughs] I don’t know. It’s just the surface of the photo that they’re copying anyway. Years ago, I was a bit concerned about it but now I’m kind of over it. I’m so excited about living in my own world that I don’t think about getting ripped off.
Right. I mean for your latest book, Nürnberg, you went back to Germany, where you’re from, and photographed all around a pretty notorious Nazi site. It’s so personal but still tells a universal story.
See? Nobody can rip that off. It’s my past, my present, and my future. It’s very specific to me. Someone can easily rip off a girl lying on the floor naked with a bright flash. Lots of people can do that with no problem.
Are you working on any new books now?
I’m going to do one that’s a collection of all the Marc Jacobs ads I’ve shot. It’s been a long time. There are a lot of things people forgot about… Jarvis Cocker, Thurston Moore, Meg White, Lisa Marie. It will be great to see them all together.
INTERVIEW BY JESSE PEARSON