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Juergen Teller - Biography

Juergen Teller is a renown German photographer who immigrated to England in the 1980s and is today based in London. His work has been focused equally in the fashion world as in the domain of music. Over the years he has worked alongside great personalities such as, for example, in the fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent for which he has directed advertising campaigns, or for famous singers. He is widely recognized as one of the most popular contemporary fashion photographers in spite of his “bad boy” reputation in the world of fashion.

Juergen Teller was born in 1964 in Erlangen, Germany. There he followed two years of photo courses, from 1984 to 1986 at the Fotodesign Academy of Munich (the “Bayerische Staatslehranstalt für Photographie”). In order to avoid military national service he would learn English and move to London at the age of 22. In 1986 he would begin his career photographing celebrities from the world of music such as, notably, Elton John.

Although he would not know anything about the world of fashion at the time, he would begin working for fashion magazines for young people such as “Face”, “W Magazine”, “i-D”, “Dazed & Confused”, and “All the vogues”. But quickly also for other fashion magazines such as “Vogue”. Still in the world of fashion, he would eventually orient himself towards high fashion, working for fashion houses, making ad campaigns not only for Yves Saint Laurent products (since 2005) but also Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs and many others. He would eventually photograph famous models such as Kate Moss,but also Claudia Schiffer, Stephanie Seymour, Winona Ryder and others. Teller would also work on music album covers of singers such as Björk, Sinead O'Connor, and Elton John, as well as for bands like Elastica, Simply Red, New Order, songwriter DJ Shadow, and others.

He would first show his talent by exhibiting his work in different countries on a permanent basis and would receive as a result numerous awards for his art, including the 1993 photography prize at the fashion festival in Monaco. Ten years later in 2003 he would also receive the Citibank photography bank. Juergen Teller would become famous in the world of fashion by daring to show through his work strongly anti-glamour shots. Indeed, instead of worshiping the models and make them look through photographic tricks even more sublime than they actually are, Teller dares to emphasize their so-called “imperfections” and human weaknesses such as wrinkles and even messy or typically unwanted hair. He is known for giving the same treatment to celebrities as well. Indeed, whether it be Yves Saint-Laurent, the English actress Charlotte Rampling or the French actress Isabelle Huppert, he does not try to flatter but to be “true”, as he puts it himself.

Similarly, Teller’s small-format portrait of the famous photographer William Eggleston would surprise by its apparent banality. Crouched in a work armchair, a drink and a cigarette in hand, the man who almost single-handedly popularized color photography in the 1970s is treated the same way as Teller’s aunt, Elfriede, sitting on a couch, hung up on the wall two frames over next to a large portrait of Kate Moss.

Juergen Teller claims above all the influence of Lee Friedlander, the American photographer known for his black and white pictures that made of the modern city purposefully not a particularly picturesque scene by including, for instance, elements such as street signs, windows and posts. This abundance of elements and unconventional framings brings about an intended confusion to Friedlander’s images, often revealing both the alienation and complexity of modern life.

Unlike Friedlander, Teller prefers to work in color. His quest for “honesty” is reflected in a frank look through intimate and mundane subject matters such as the portrait of his daughter next to a vase, or, again, that of his aunt, or also the castle New Schwantein, center of Bavarian tourism, which all characterize his absolute refusal of conventional stereotypes of beauty.

Teller falls in the tradition of documentary photography and of direct aesthetics of “straight photography”, which is known for its as pure as possible rendition of a scene in that it strives to be realistic and objective. Similarly, his “amateur” framings which include deliberate “mistakes” such as flash reflections or  everyday life subjects in simple poses, all contribute to a kind of aesthetics of failure that capture attention because of the banality displayed. Yet we should not be fooled from a first impression, for Teller points out that his images are never actually taken accidentally, but always the result of thoughtful planning and precise staging.

Jurgen Teller therefore positions himself far from polished photography and conventional beauty. He is one of those who, since 1990, has contributed to the reinvention of fashion photography. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in Queens, NY would recognize and reward his talent for innovation in presenting his work in the important group exhibition entitled “Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990” (Summer 2004). There, Teller’s work would be presented along with that of other important photographers such as Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Philip Lorca diCorcia, Cedric Buchet, Glen Luchford, Larry Sultan Ellen von Unweth and Tina Barney.

In his exhibition entitled “Do You Know What I Mean” (2006), he offers a mixture of personal and professional work as well as images of celebrity “people” and more intimate matters. In this way, here as well as elsewhere individual and collective memories are mixed. For example, images in the series entitled “Nürnberg” (2004-2005), which means “Nuremberg” in English, consists of still lifes as well as small fragile plants, which in places are covered with snow and in others are bathed in sunshine, all of which stand out on a wall of dull gray concrete. These images are taken in the Zeppelintribüne, former meeting place of the Nazis under Hitler’s regime.

The history of Germany, his country of origin, would indeed all along be a heavy burden to bear for Juergen Teller. His return at this cursed place in a city that was razed to the ground at the end of World War II is a way for him to not only commemorate the horrors of the past but also to celebrate the life force that remains in spite of it all.  

Albrecht Dürer’s “Great Piece of Turf” (1501), a painting by “the painter of Nuremberg” is therefore transposed by a young and uprooted cosmopolitan in search of truth in our modern society, also in search for closure and meaning, in facing his personal story as well, such as his alcoholic father who would commit suicide in 1989. Jurgen Teler and the designer and art director Venetia Scott would have a little girl from a brief involvement. Moreover with the birth of his son, Teller would seem to have been inspired to a return on his own childhood in his work. With a subtler look, perhaps a more mature one, than at the time when he had made a nude self-portrait, which portrayed him with a can of beer in his hand and his foot on the grave of his father.    

At first glance, the “Do You Know What I Mean” photographs may at best cause boredom, and at worst irritation or misunderstanding. Faced with the many family portraits where his son occupies a prominent place among the 59 pictures presented, together with the self-portraits in which Teller shows off his manhood with the same candor as the rest of his naked body, one may wonder how such narcissistic navel-gazing could be a great show, and ultimately bring one to ask oneself “How is this art?”. However by taking the time to get out of our own listless mind, looking at the pictures again, many come to grasp what the artist is telling us through the images. Starting with the title of the exhibition, “Do You Know What Mean”, which while thought-provoking, does not give a clear answer. Without taking the time one may risk missing out on a work renown for its great sensitivity, which reflects with a discreet subtlety something of life at the beginning of the third millennium: cosmopolitan, complex, and indeed fragility.   

Teller has also directed several short films including “Can I Own Myself” in 1998 in which he also appears Kate Moss. More recently he would slow down the pace of his work, preferring to focus on his family more.

Juergen Teller is a Professor of Fashion Media at the European Graduate School where he teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.