In our humble opinion, Juergen Teller is responsible for everything that is awesome about fashion photography. Along with the fellow photogs like Wolfgang Tillmans, and later, Terry Richardson, he changed the ‘90s mood from unattainable glossy perfection to something a lot more real—and a lot more (crucially) fun.
While there’s no denying that this beer-drinking, football-loving German has a knack for shock and outrage, we love the fact that his work — whether it’s Kate Moss naked in a wheelbarrow or a snap of his adorable son Ed — is also honest, intimate, and endearing. And hey, anyone who can convince Victoria Beckham to sit legs akimbo in a large shopping bag has to be a genius, right?
This week, Teller's first major U.K. exhibition in what feels like ages, opens at the ICA. Woo spans the photographer’s career, from his infamous commercial collaborations with Mr. Jacobs to his portraits of Kurt Cobain to his snaps of a wet dog in Suffolk.
At the exhibition preview, Juergen told us that what links his work is curiosity: "I approach all my subjects in the same way, whether it's Vivienne Westwood or a hedge—you only live once and you've got to f*cking go out there and do what you need to do, find out what you need to find out," he explained, "all my work is about curiosity, I photographed my arse-hole because I was curious to know how it looks". And now we all know.
And what about coaxing VB to pose in those Marc Jacobs images? "Obviously it would have been a bad idea to turn up in Los Angeles with a shopping bag and to ask her to climb in...it was very important that she was laughing with us, so I explained to her the idea; that she is a product in the world of fashion, like perfume is, or a handbag. She is a product of her own making—and she went for it."
We had the pleasure of speaking to ICA director and Juergen’s long-time collaborator Gregor Muir to get the inside scoop...
What’s the thinking behind the exhibition’s title, Woo? It’s kind of odd.
"Glad you asked...The title comes from a character in the HBO series Eastbound and Down played by Will Ferrell. His character, Ashley Schaeffer, often uses the expression 'woo!' and it’s deeply hilarious."
And this is Juergen’s joke?
"I love it because it’s something that has clearly tickled Juergen, but at the same time it plays with a lot of the ideas in the exhibition. People in Juergen’s images have a way of revealing themselves in a manner that leaves you aghast and it’s a word that mirrors this feeling. He’s also wooing, in the sense of courting their friendship in order for them to reveal themselves — often in very intimate ways."
Given his mega body of work, how have you narrowed things down? Is there a common thread that runs through the exhibition?
"As we speak, Juergen’s creating this amazing collage for one of the displays, and I think that’s really the tone of the exhibition: showing a broad swath of work across the years from commercial and fashion work, as well as artwork and more personal projects. We felt that people need to come afresh and take in the wealth of work he’s produced in order to place it for themselves."
Kate Moss, No.12, Gloucestershire, 2010; photo courtesy of Juergen Teller/ICA
What is it about Juergen that allows him to persuade such inaccessible celebrities to completely drop their guard? I’m thinking about people like Kate Moss, Charlotte Rampling, and of course Mrs Beckham...
"I think his subjects — be it Victoria Beckham or his own children — are at ease in the images, they really have true intimacy. I think his ability to put his subjects at ease is due to the fact that he’s quite a cool customer, and he’s not the garish photographer that some might imagine."
So, he’s not the clichéd idea of a big-shot photographer striding around with his entourage?
"I think it might surprise people to learn that he’s shy, he’s modest and he’s a fairly self-contained individual. He’s not outlandish or outspoken or over the top in any way. He’s really very endearing."
And does that inform his work being simply sensationalist? I’m thinking particularly of the more eyebrow-raising works where he puts himself in the picture, nude. Really nude.
"To be honest I would be hard pushed to call any of them truly outrageous, because when you look at the people in the images, not only are they completely complicit in the image-making process, but they also look really calm. Maybe it’s about being at the eye of the storm."
Father and Son; photo courtesy of Juergen Teller/ICA
So, the key to his work is this feeling of closeness?
"Intimacy is so crucial to much of his photography; this incredible human connection that he has with his subjects, be they celebrities or not, and he just seems to bring something out. I love the way there is a kind of levelling in his work based on this idea of him and his subjects collaborating to produce the best image on the day."
Is that true of his work with Victoria?
"I think the image of Victoria Beckham with her feet sticking out of a Marc Jacobs bag is a truly iconic Teller image that illustrates a wonderful collaboration between Juergen and his subject. There’s no question in my mind that these images didn’t come about without a real understanding between the Juergen and Victoria."
Cerith, Suffolk 2011; photo courtesy of Juergen Teller/ICA
Does it frustrate you when his style is dismissed as accidental or off-the-cuff?
"What a lot of people don’t realise is the amount of effort that goes into these photos that look like they were taken in the spur of the moment. It has taken months of negotiations in certain instances because he’s asking them to do something that they’ve probably never considered doing before.
These conversations with his subjects have to be personal and about building the relationship that’s needed to get the best out of them."
And what about the photography process itself?
"Because there is this intimacy, they need to be reasonably low impact. He’s using hand held 35mm cameras with flash on top, and he has the knack of finding the right moment to take images and he knows how to seize an opportunity. At this point in he goes in with the two flash cameras and at that moment you see the subject looking ever-so-slightly hypnotised by the process."
Pettitoe, Suffolk, 2011; photo courtesy of Juergen Teller/ICA
What do you make of Juergen the fashion photographer?
"I think it’s the humanity and honesty that what makes him an incredible fashion photographer. Juergen has so much fun being in the world of fashion but he comes at it so differently. Fashion and glamour are often seen to be linked, but Juergen has always challenged this in a very distinct way."
Does it surprise you that his anti-fashion approach has made him such a raging success in fashion circles?
"I’m not surprised that his work has done so well in the world of fashion because it is so different. You get the sense with Juergen that he’s led by the image more than anything else — not the product. But it’s exactly this approach that ends up selling the product."
Cat Smoking, Hydra, 2012; photo courtesy of Juergen Teller/ICA
Most people’s first experience of Juergen’s work is his commercial stuff, like his projects with Marc Jacobs — does that matter?
"I think that’s exciting, because it shows the great potential for images to reach people and their ability to flood the world. What’s interesting about this exhibition is that the more you look, the more you begin to see this it doesn’t matter how they’ve reached us, what matters is that they have become iconic images that map out our time. The one of Bjork and her son, which was an old Face magazine shoot is a great example of something that transcends its origin."
You’ve know each other since the ‘90s. What is it about his work that makes it stand out to you?
"He doesn’t make a big flash, bang, wallop kind of image that’s heavily staged and over-bearing. He avoids that by talking directly to the subject. The more time I’ve spent with the work, the more I lean toward appreciating the images as ones of great sensitivity. I think Juergen’s images ultimately engage us in the same way that he engages his subject. We can’t help but be drawn in."
Bjork and Son, Iceland 1993; photo courtesy of Juergen Teller/ICA