Iconic Photographer Juergen Teller Is Still Surprising Himself

Iconic Photographer Juergen Teller Is Still Surprising Himself

Art

Elyssa Goodman

Juergen Teller, Lars Eidinger, London, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Juergen Teller, Self-Portrait with pink shorts and balloons, Paris, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

In the 1990s, grunge inspired all manner of creative output, from fashion to music to art. Since then, Juergen Teller, the now-famed fashion photographer, has been at the center of a photographic wave that looks for the glamour in grit, and the drama, humor, and irony in the commonplace.

Teller began his career shooting album covers, but by the late ’90s had moved into fashion photography, including what would become a decades-long collaboration with designer Marc Jacobs, featuring shots of Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, hair hanging in her face as she plays the guitar; Victoria Beckham’s legs jutting out of a shopping bag; and Teller himself posing in a series of wigs and costumes with Cindy Sherman.

Since then, Teller’s work has been featured not just in fashion campaigns but art books, solo museum exhibitions, and even film projects. Whether it’s working with designers like Jacobs, creating portrait series for W magazine, or executing incisive personal work using his trenchant eye to comment on family and identity, Teller has crafted a foothold for himself in both fashion and art with his compelling signature blend of lightness and gravitas.

Earlier this year, Teller’s work was on view in the exhibition “I need to live,” in both Paris (at the Grand Palais) and the Triennale Milano. In December, he also released five books: Fashion Photography for America 1999–2016, Jurgaičiai, More Handbags, The Myth, and the catalogue of I need to live. Plus, on February 28th, his book of campaign and editorial images with Saint Laurent’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello debuted during Paris Fashion Week.

Teller spoke to Artsy about why he likes photographing handbags, how a pregnancy myth inspired a book, and how he keeps his work exciting.

Why is making books important to you as a photographer?

I find it very fulfilling. It’s a record of what I’m thinking, what I do. I had a very large show at the Grand Palais in Paris—[a] 100,000-square-foot space—which then moved to the Triennale in Milan. We worked on the exhibition structure for over two years, and then I got stuck. I started to work on the catalogue, which inspired what to do in the three-dimensional space. When everything is online, everybody sees it immediately, and next week it’s something else. It was important to keep all the work as an object, whether that’s on the wall, glued, nailed, in a frame, in a book: You can look at it and, to a certain extent, touch it.

Juergen Teller, Frozen Dead Dod, Pictures and Text Book, London, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Juergen Teller, work from the series “Fashion Photography for America 1999-2016,” 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Why two books about handbags, specifically?

I had an exhibition in 2017 in Naples, Italy, presenting my images of handbags, and made a book out of it. I thought, “What is actually fashion photography nowadays?” And I remember from fashion designers to other photography colleagues, the last thing they wanted to do on a shoot is photograph a handbag. And I never really minded doing that: I enjoyed photographing them as still lifes or with the subjects.

I just realized I have so many of them. If you open a fashion magazine, every fashion company has a handbag in the ads—that was not the case 15 years ago. I made a new book, More Handbags, to catalog and recontextualize my work.

You’ve said curiosity is important to your photography. How do you keep yourself interested?

Becoming bored or jaded is inevitable, but you have to do something with yourself. Not knowing what to do is also part of being creative. Once an idea sparks or you start loosening yourself up and accept you don’t know what to do, something unexpected comes and refreshes your interest.

For example, my wife and I went to the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni [in Lake Como, Italy]. At the time, we wanted to get pregnant. We were in this hotel room. I said, “Maybe it’s a good idea to put your legs up, that might help.” She did it and I thought, this looks really pretty. I thought it would be wonderful to photograph her in every room. I didn’t know how to ask this hotel manager, it’s a crazy idea! In these different rooms there were also christening pictures, drawings of babies, paintings of a stork, all these hints of a baby. It was overwhelming and so fabulous, and became our book The Myth. You don’t have so many great ideas every five minutes. You have to live a normal life and once in a while you come up with something hopefully great. You have to be open to change the structure of your work. That’s the reason I think my work is alive; it’s not prefabricated and storyboarded.

Juergen Teller, The Myth No.50, Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

Where did you see that openness reflected in your commercial work?

A good example is my working relationship with Marc Jacobs. He knew my work with Charlotte Rampling, and that we were close friends. He asked about working with Charlotte Rampling on a campaign. It used to be very uncool to advertise a product for fashion companies—it used to only be models—and I was sure she’d say no. I thought, “Maybe I can convince her to do it if I were the male model and do self-portraits with her.” Then she was interested. She wasn’t just wearing something, holding a handbag. It was an adventure. And afterwards, we collaborated for six months for a book project.

I also really like working with Anthony Vaccarello from Saint Laurent. We’ve been working together since 2018 on all the advertising campaigns and I did some editorials of Saint Laurent. Anthony had an idea to do a book together. For the first time, I thought, “I don’t want to dictate because I trust him.” I’m super proud of it.

You’ve also discussed the importance of lightness and humor in your work. How do you maintain that?

I think a certain lightness comes from a certain heaviness. How can you not see the funny side of a completely outrageous outfit? People treat fashion extremely seriously—there’s a lot of money involved, and it’s all about sales. But it’s also about fantasy. I think I always walk a fine line where I am extremely serious and humorous simultaneously. I have a lot of responsibilities on certain big-budget shoots, but I don’t want to lose the lightness and the fun. I want to surprise myself. I want to be alive.

When I do these W portfolios of these Hollywood actors [most recently W’s 2024 Best Performances issue featuring Margot Robbie, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and more], I ask myself, “What can you do with them?” They’re portraits, but they’re also wearing fashionable garments which need to be shown and I have to photograph them all in three days. Most people would photograph them in the studio, and we just thought, “What is Hollywood? What is Los Angeles?” And then we googled: “What is the most glamorous place in Los Angeles?” And what comes up? Hollywood Boulevard. We thought, “That’s funny, let’s photograph it there.”

There was a street performer impersonating an actor who was so convincing, I literally thought was the actual actor. So when I had all the actors there, it wasn’t such a woo-ha with tourists. It was really fun to do. You want to do something interesting for yourself and you also want to challenge yourself.

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