Who is Juergen Teller? An exclusive interview

Sleek speaks to the photographer about frogs, plates and what's wrong with contemporary photography

‘Juergen Teller’s Renegade Eye’ published online April 2015 (Shot during Kayne West T magazine shoot)

Juergen Teller looks tired. He’s sitting on a plastic folding chair in the atrium of the Kunstpalais Erlangen, an art museum in a small Baroque castle in the Bavarian city of Erlangen. Assistants are running around with microphones and equipment: Teller is opening an exhibition later that evening, the first in his hometown – he hails from a nearby village. Clad in his trademark red puffer jacket and blue woolly hat, he’s unshaven, and his physique is portlier than after his much vaunted fitness regime of 2016. He’s back on the fags, nipping out into the freezing January afternoon at regular intervals. And he also speaks slowly, punctuating his sentences with many ‘you knows’, searching for words in an accented English despite his 30-odd years living in the UK.

Teller doesn’t require an introduction. He has captured everyone from Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, to Claudia Schiffer, and Kate Moss, making fashion history with his apparently spontaneous high-flash analogue images. However, this exhibition marks a departure. Working with long-time collaborators such as Charlotte Rampling, his son and his mother, he has traded the analogue for digital precision, introducing frogs, crockery items, foxes and even the Bayern Munich football team as protagonists.

Kanye, Juergen & Kim No.51, Chateau d’Ambleville

The Erlangen exhibition, he tells Sleek, wasn’t really on the cards: with a touring exhibition that’s travelling from the Bundeskunsthalle to Berlin’s Gropiusbau via the Rudolfinum in Prague, there wasn’t really a reason. “It was the last thing I needed,” he says, “but I kind of had to do it, it’s a responsibility to have [an exhibition] where you come from.” Showing in his hometown also brought its own challenges in terms of choosing suitable work. “I worried,” he admits. “I worked a lot on how to do it, you know.” He was cautious. “I had to be sensitive for my mother. There are certain aspects where she has problems.”

Teller’s preoccupation with his hometown reception found its way into a video, near the end of the exhibition, entitled ‘Dieter, Erlangen 2017’, in which Teller, disguised as an working-class Erlangen resident, with an unkempt grey wig, glasses and dirty jeans, and sporting a carrier bag from a discount supermarket, wanders through his own exhibition, muttering in his best Bavarian: “What is this shit? Is it art? Why is it in English?” Perhaps he shouldn’t have worried. Over a pre-opening aperitif in a nearby café, SLEEK encountered a jolly group of portly gray men, reminiscing about eighties boozing sessions with Juergen, and during the interview, Volkmar, one of Juergen’s first models, approached with a stack of old prints for Teller to sign. There is clearly pride in the Teller return.

Lars Eidinger, Plates/Teller No.18, 2016

In the exhibition, the visitor first encounters a series of self-portraits, including Teller in jogging gear with a portrait of Adenauer, the first German president, and his mother Irene holding a sign. They are taken from the magazine Numero, and show Teller engaging with a number of rites of German artistic passage: hanging out with the German president Gauck and his mum, opening his exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle, Germany’s state exhibition hall – a firm arrival at the heart of the German establishment.

Several photos reference photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, of whom he recently curated an exhibition at Alison Jaques gallery in London. “I went to his archive and spent a lot of time there, I worked on this exhibition for about three months, and I noticed that he took many weird pictures of plates. I found this image of a plate with frogs on it, and another of a pile of plates, and there was a man standing on it. And then you really wonder, what kind of meaning is this supposed to have? Does it have a meaning?”

This sense of the surreal has become manifest in Teller’s work through his detournement of Mapplethorpe’s motif. This also functions as a self-reference, too: In German, ‘Teller’ means ‘plate’, perhaps one of the art world’s worst dad jokes. “The title of the exhibition at the Bundeskunsthalle is ‘Mit dem Teller nach Bonn’ (With a plate to Bonn). If I put a plate in your hand, then suddenly it’s a self-portrait with Charlotte Rampling, a self-portrait with, you know, bla, bla, bla. And then I started to, in a way, work three dimensionally, and produce sculptures – one meter twenty and one meter eighty diagram plates. And I put my own pictures on the large plates and the small plates, a huge series.”

Mapplethorpe, like Teller, straddled the boundary between celebrity portraiture, commercial product shoots and surrealistic image-making. As Teller told Time Out: “He’s completely uncompromising with what he wants to do. And I think that’s why he’s important. Some people might think his work isn’t politically correct or whatever, but it’s purely and selfishly an expression of what he thinks. He just went out and did it.” The same could be said of Teller’s trailblazing in pursuit of his idols. In 1991, he famously travelled to Japan to meet Araki, the Japanese photographic legend. “Hardly anyone in America or in Europe knew about him then. He literally blew my mind, you know – he just had done an exhibition in a flower garden, outdoors, exposing the photographs to the elements. I was so taken aback! He was so inspiring and so enthusiastic – I learned from him – to do what you want to do. To really roam free with your fantasy and to be brave and super energetic, with a powerful drive and work. And to trust your instinct.”

Charlotte Rampling, a Fox, and a Plate No.14, Latimer Road studio, London 2016

One of the most remarkable works in the Erlangen exhibition is a slide-show depicting Rampling drinking milk from a dish with a fox in the garden of Teller’s studio. “Charlotte Rampling asked me to do her a favour and photograph her for the cover of a magazine. And I said to her, I’ll do it, but please come to London, and I will make lunch for you, and we do these pictures. And a fox just happened to be in my garden, I wanted to photograph her with it because she reminded me of one. I wanted to have myself in the image too, which is where the plate came in. So the story is Charlotte Rampling, the plate and a fox, drinking milk from me, the plate,” he says. Was he ‘performing’ a maternal role? “In a way, yes.”

Similarly, he had little interest in shooting straightforward portraits of the Kardashian Wests, finding the gardens of a French chateau, “Too manicured for such a manicured couple. I just thought, ‘Oh my God. [I’d] find it much more interesting to do it on a construction site on the edge of the gardens.’ The series, in which Kim is depicted crawling up a [bank] is called ‘Kanye, Juergen and Kim’ – he is in the picture through his styling, and I am in it as a plate!” Initially approached by Kanye, who’d always wanted to work with Teller, the photographer professed to be “intrigued and amused” by the singer.

Teller recently turned 53, and his mania for self-portraiture and self-referencing can be read as a reflection on middle-aged masculinity. Recent exhibitions certainly abound in flaccid, unremarkable penises. In one image in the Bundeskunsthalle exhibition, an unimpressed Helen Marten, recent winner of the Turner Prize, holds a vacuum cleaner looking down at an oversized piece of crockery depicting Teller in a G-string. His male protagonists are anti-heroes, anti-male. Aware of their own ridiculousness, they pose in high-heels, trouserless, holding water hoses, eating bananas. They’re not vulnerable. Rather, they display the self-aware ironic melancholia of the pierrot, conscious of their own ridiculousness. In contrast, his female protagonists are bold, gazing straight into the camera, wholly aware of their image and effect. The exception is perhaps his photo series shot with Kim Kardashian West, her position far more voyeuristic and vulnerable.

Teller isn’t interested in portraying the everyday; instead, he inhabits his own universe. If his surroundings respond to him, it’s because he controls them. He is, after all, a control freak: no one is allowed to take his photograph unless he directs it. And he dominates his images of other people through the props bearing his countenance. Here, the author is indeed a producer. Unlike many contemporary photographers, especially those endemic to social media, Teller forges a harsh, abject and surreal visual path. When he captures Charlotte Rampling and a fox drinking milk from a dish, there is a sense of disruption to the standardised performance of celebrity; the protagonists have submitted to his vision. The spontaneous composition is carefully art-directed and controlled, and thereby paradoxically much more effective.

This instinctual self-reliance is reflected in Teller’s blunt answers. When asked what beauty is to him, the answer is a simple “Was schoen ist [Ed: ‘What is beautiful’.] – it really could be anything.” Similarly, a failed image is “one that just doesn’t work. It happens all the time. “ And when does he know what a good image is? “You just know it. You just absolutely know it. When your gut instinct, when your heart, when your brain, when everything works, then it comes together.”

‘I love my Mum, I love Germany No.1, Bubenreuth 2016
Mit dem Teller nach Bonn, No.19, 2016
Eva Herzigova, Mit dem Teller nach Bonn, No. 3, 2016
Plates/Teller, No.63, 2016
Food No.45, Hotel Il Pellicano 2010, Plates/Teller No.64, 2016
Saskia de Brauw No.14, Parc de Bagatelle, Paris 2014
Eva Herzigova, Mit dem Teller nach Bonn, No.8, 2016

Teller has famously collaborated with visual artists, including Urs Fischer, Cindy Sherman and Boris Michaelov, the current Ukrainian representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale, whom he is photographing, along with his works, in Berlin. “I am really excited about that, I love and admire and I find it so inspiring!” However, his idiosyncratic approach isn’t sought after in all quarters, and he feels adrift from fashion’s current desire for glossy, manicured, photoshopped images. “Not everyone hires me. You know it’s always difficult to produce good work, you have to fight for it and work hard for it. And in the commercial world it has become much more difficult and I have to admit that I see it now much more as a way of earning money than before.”

Joan Didion, Céline Campaign Spring Summer 2015, New York 2014

A good example of his increasingly distant relationship with commercial photography is his self-portrait for industry magazine The Business of Fashion.I thought, oh God [a] self-portrait. I get more and more comments through my clients, saying, ‘Make this a bit darker or, this is not right, re-touch this here, can we change actually the shoes into brown because we are not selling the black model, and make the neck skinnier.’ You get all these crazy remarks and I am thinking, what the fuck is this? The photo was my response.” Re-touching is antithetical to the naturalistic style that made Teller’s name, and he’s scathing about the impact of Photoshop on his art. “Everybody can do it, and anyone who takes a selfie manipulates their own image and makes it more white and takes this out and so on. It’s all the same, and so it becomes an everyday language. And there are more and more images around, even art directors and fashion designers are all doing it, [taking photographs of] themselves, so they all have an opinion!”

He is also skeptical about Instagram. The platform certainly propagates the use of retouched images via its pre-set filters. “I haven’t quite formed my opinion about [it],” he says. “I am not on the [it] but I do look at it sometimes, and when I do, it’s more disturbing and annoying than actually helpful. It feeds my own insecurities in a bizarre way. All the other photographers… ‘They did that for a fashion photograph, they had this.’ They [all] seem like they’re doing endless tons of fucking stuff. There is no criticism, it’s just all fluff, and this self-promotion is overwhelmingly awful.“

Thus, although Teller might have made his name in fashion, he is gravitating away from using his skill as a commercial enterprise. Three years ago, he became a professor of photography at the university of Nürnberg. His work has always blurred the boundary between commerce and art, yet this recent run of exhibitions will elevate his aesthetic games further into the context of the art world. As he noted in Erlangen, “you can use everything for your own advantage. It doesn’t satisfy me to just photograph things – that’s boring. Everything I do is like a self-portrait and I want to bring everything into it that I can.”

Diane Arbus' Best Photographs