German-born Juergen Teller is one of the most prolific and highly sought after photographers working in the world today. Known for his stylized fashion and portraiture work, his images have not only helped crystallize the identity of brands such as Marc Jacobs, Celiné and Vivienne Westwood, but they also played a major role in defining the visual language of the ’90s.
In a career that has spanned almost three decades, he has shot numerous celebrities, ranging from Björk to Pamela Anderson, and his trademark look has influenced countless photographers. As well as having his work exhibited in galleries across the globe, he now teaches aspiring young pupils at Nuremberg’s Academy of Fine Arts.
In this installment of Know Your Photographers, we take a look at Juergen Teller’s impact on modern photography:
A Radical Viewpoint on Beauty
The ’90s were a transformational period for fashion where the codified norms of previous decades were rejected in favor of radical and new ideas. Designers redefined idealized notions of beauty through their clothes, the likes of Kate Moss usurped a long lineage of glamorous supermodels and a quiet style revolution was brewing in the alternative fashion press.
Shooting for magazines such as The Face and i-D, a little-known German photographer working out of his studio in London documented this new movement in its purest form. Renowned for his raw and often overexposed look, Juergen Teller’s work came to define the anti-glamour aesthetic of the ’90s.
Armed with a Contax G2 camera with on-board flash, his approach denounced the techniques and ideals of his predecessors. His images lacked visual depth, appeared washed out and often had a claustrophobically intimate quality to them. But Teller had struck upon something, and the new visual style that he pioneered succinctly captured the pervasive mood of the time.
Marc Jacobs and Other Designers
The ability to capture nuanced and ephemeral feelings won Teller many admirers. His work was deemed edgy, honest and authentic, and fashion designers the world over were keen to tap into this in the hope of adding credibility to their brand.
The offers soon began to roll in with a particularly symbiotic and long lasting relationship emerging with American designer Marc Jacobs. Introduced in 1998 by Teller’s first wife, the stylist Venetia Scott, the two embarked on a journey that saw the creation of some of the most iconic advertising campaigns fashion had ever seen.
The first project the two worked on centered around Sonic Youth bass guitarist, Kim Gordon. Ever since his infamous Perry Ellis ‘grunge collection’ in 1992, Jacobs had long been fascinated by the idea of appropriating musical subcultures into his clothing. Keen to revisit this area, Teller’s images of Gordon wearing a Marc Jacobs dress on stage were a heady blend of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism, youthful rebellion and celebrity allure.
Another standout from 2003 featured the recently arrested Hollywood actress Winona Ryder. Appearing on charges of shoplifting from the Saks department store in Beverly Hills, Ryder was spotted wearing a Marc Jacobs dress to court. Seeing an irresistible opportunity, Jacobs immediately hired her and Teller’s now infamous photoshoot encapsulated both men’s irreverent and playful world view.
Over the years, a diverse array of celebrities such as Victoria Beckham, Michael Stipe, Sofia Coppola, Helena Bonham Carter and even Jacobs himself have all lent their fame to the cause. And it is exactly this, fame, that is at the centre of the Teller/Jacobs narrative.
It is not beauty or youth, the two things that have historically dominated fashion advertising. It is not makeup or styling, both of which are seldom seen in the campaigns. Often it’s not even about the clothes. It is about taking an outsiders view and connecting with the audience through emotion and personality.
Teller has since worked with many other top names in fashion. His photographs for Céline ooze minimalist Parisian cool in the style of Phoebe Philo, yet the images for Vivienne Westwood’s eponymous label take the eccentricity of the designer as primary influence. Work for Miu Miu is elegant, playful and understated whereas his Comme des Garçons imagery is quirky and alternative.
What makes Teller so popular with designers is his exceptional ability to be both instantly recognizable yet utterly unique. This chameleon-like approach has seen him rise to the top of the game and firmly establish himself as one of the most in demand and respected photographers alive.
The path to international stardom began in humble beginnings. Born in Erlangen, Germany, in 1964, it was always Teller’s destiny to enter the family woodwork business, but an allergy to sawdust soon put an abrupt end to this. Eager to pursue a creative career, he moved to Munich to study at Bayerische Staatslehranstalt, a school specializing in art and photography.
After graduation, and in a bid to avoid compulsory military service, he relocated to London at the age of 22. He found early success working with musicians, shooting album artwork for prominent artists that included Björk, Sinead O’Connor and The Cocteau Twins. Magazines such as The Face, i-D and Details took notice and soon Teller was being offered feature and editorial assignments.
But it was in 1991 that he really made a name for himself as a portrait photographer when he was given the opportunity to shoot Nirvana on their German tour. The images he took, especially of Kurt Cobain, were seminal. They captured the chaotic, boundless energy of the band before they attained worldwide fame and notoriety. The timing couldn’t have been better, as only a couple of months later they released Nevermind, the album that propelled them to international prominence.
This period, at the end of the ’80s and the start of the ’90s, was particularly crucial for Teller. It allowed him to develop his iconic style and helped him to realize that a great image wasn’t necessarily reliant on the photographer’s technical ability. He discovered that connecting with the subject and getting them to reveal something about themselves that others hadn’t exposed was the key. It was this realization that Teller built an entire career from.
Working with Helmut
Although the Nirvana images opened a lot of doors for Teller, their publication signaled a turning point in his output. He started to move away from music photography and focused more on fashion editorials. As his reputation steadily grew he was approached by Vogue, landing his first cover for the publication in 1994 with a shot of his good friend, Kate Moss.
This was an exciting and particularly fruitful period in Teller’s life as he was rapidly cementing himself as one of the most in demand photographers of the day. Yet his career reached even giddier heights in 1993 when he asked the iconoclastic Austrian designer Helmut Lang if he could shoot backstage at his SS-94 catwalk show in Paris.
It was a bold and revolutionary decision. Photographers were seldom allowed behind the scenes at fashion week in an effort to preserve the air of mystery surrounding shows. “I remember that Juergen simply asked me if he could photograph backstage,” recalled Lang in a 2010 interview. “He did his pictures, and I took care of backstage.” Suitably impressed with the results, Lang made the pioneering move of using one of Teller’s images of model Kirsten Owen as the centre piece for the collection’s advertising campaign.
“It wasn’t initially planned that way,” explained Lang. “I think what was new and important about all this was the original intent, that we did not produce a special shoot for these purposes, but rather used existing photographs. It was also less expensive and turned out to be a rather new idea.”
The parallels between Lang and Teller bear a striking similarity. Lang is considered to be the designer who invented fashion for the new millennium, and it would be hard to argue that Teller didn’t do the same for fashion photography. The two worked together for many years, creating a type of effortless branding that spawned countless imitators.
Teller’s oeuvre is not merely defined by his commercial fashion and portraiture work. Through gallery shows and book releases, he has consistently shown himself to be a high concept photographer with a considered eye, and his 1999 book, Go-Sees, is a fine example of this.
Having attained notoriety in the mid ’90s, Teller was constantly inundated with requests to shoot ‘go-sees’ – up and coming models eager to follow in the footsteps of Kate Moss. Photographed on his doorstep, Teller chronicled the hundreds of naïve, nomadic and eager women who turned up at his studio at the request of their agencies.
Hungry for fame or a quick buck, the agencies are portrayed as eager to cash in on the hopes and dreams of these young women. There is an unnerving beauty that pervades throughout the book, but there is also something uncomfortable in seeing the faces staring back at Teller’s lens.
Go-Sees toes the line between exploitation and kindness and shows a human side to an often faceless industry. It also acted as a conceptual critique of the state of fashion at the time, with the images painting a rather poignant, if not particularly pretty, portrait of the way aspiring models are treated by agencies.
New Aesthetic, New Attitude
The lo-fi influence of Juergen Teller can be seen everywhere. Turn a page of a fashion magazine or glance up at an advertising hoarding and you will see traces of a style that he pioneered over a quarter of a century ago.
Eschewing the glamorous look that had once dominated the industry, he was the photographer of the ’90s. No longer did editorials have to be sexy and desirable, they could be irreverent and self-deprecating. Models didn’t have to sprawl seductively on glamorous furniture, they could writhe around in an unflattering manner on garishly carpeted floors. It was a rejection of the moneyed, status-obsessed world that had prevailed in the ’80s.
At its heart, Teller’s work was about capturing a moment and a mood. From this idea, an entire era of fashion photography was defined, not only in terms if aesthetic, but also attitude.
To see more photos by Juergen Teller, check out behind the scenes shots of Kanye & Kim Kardashian West.
- Lead image: Juergen Teller