HIS LENS AIMS NOT TO ENHANCE BEAUTY, BUT TO REVEAL BEAUTY IN ITS PURE, UNMASKED FORM. AN INTIMATE MOMENT CAUGHT OFF-GUARD. SINCE HE FIRST STEPPED ON THE SCENE IN 1986, THE ENFANT TERRIBLE OF FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY JÜRGEN TELLER HAS BEEN CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO.
Equally drawn to documentary and fashion photography, Teller has managed to create a singular space where art and advertising merge and become one. His unique style is provocative, examining social constructs of beauty while at the same time pushing his protagonists to the limits of their vulnerability. Originally from the small Franconian town Bubenreuth, Teller began his career in London, where he would become one of the most important fashion photographers of the 1990s and revolutionize the genre.
THE RISE TO SUCCESS
Jürgen Teller’s impressive journey didn’t begin as might be expected. The son of a successful luthier, Teller decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and learn the family skill by becoming a bow-maker. Luckily, perhaps, his ambitions where abruptly cut short by a dust allergy, which left him incapable of continuing his apprenticeship. He would later on claim his allergy had been psycho-somatic, so that he could turn his back on bow-making and set on a course towards his true passion: photography.
In 1984 Teller began a two-year training program in photography at the “Bayerische Staatslehranstalt für Photographie” in Munich. In 1986, shortly after having completed the program, he moved to London. It wasn’t so much a career move as it was the easiest way to avoid being drafted into Germany’s then obligatory military service.
One of his first contacts in London was the famous documentary and fashion photographer Nick Knight, who introduced Teller to the local music scene. Some of Teller’s first works include portraits of Elton John, Simply Red and the then unknown Kurt Cobain, whom he shot for the album cover of the Nirvana record 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.
REVOLUTIONIZING FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY
Jürgen Teller began focusing on fashion after he met his wife, the stylist Venetia Scott. Together they began organizing fashion shoots unlike any the industry had seen before. Uninspired by contemporary ideas of beauty and perfection and the masquerade of glamour that dominated the fashion industry, the couple began shooting models atypical for the time, who’s personalities stood out before their physical beauty. Perhaps it was Teller’s inexperience in fashion photography that allowed him to work so freely and uninhibitedly. One of his most attributed achievements is the discovery of Kate Moss, whose relatively short stature, slightly bowed legs and separate eyes bore no resemblance to the typical fashion model of the time.
It was during this period that Teller joined a group of photographers shooting for the “anti-fashion” fashion magazine, i-D. i-D magazine was designer and former Vogue art director Terry Jones’ answer to the strict and mundane interpretations of fashion and beauty that prevailed at the time.
In its initial years, i-D was merely a hand-stapled fanzine focusing on music and street-style fashion. With it’s handful of contributing photographers including Nick Knight and Jürgen Teller, i-D became the platform from which a new kind of fashion movement could emerge - one that would change the fashion industry and fashion photography forever: grunge.
Grunge fashion was a combination of raw beauty infused with street style. It featured girls that were strong but natural without compromising their femininity. Once the excess layers of interpretations of beauty had been stripped away, their personalities became the focus point.
Following his work for i-D and having established his own personal direct and open style, Teller began receiving more attention from major magazine editors. The work that perhaps best marks his rise to stardom is the series titled Versace-Heart for German SZ-Magazin. In it, supermodel Kirsten McMenamy is depicted naked with a red heart drawn on her chest that reads Versace. Versace-Heart was what ultimately established Teller’s bad-boy image and his signature candid and bold style. What followed were first jobs with high-end magazines such as Dazed and Confused, Purple, and W.
Though his editorial work laid the foundation for his career, he later acknowledged that he preferred collaborating with designers, as they showed a better understanding of his work and wouldn’t try to suffocate his vision. Key collaborations included campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, Comme des Garçons, or Helmut Lang.
Especially popular was a campaign Teller shot for Marc Jacobs in 2008, showing Victoria Beckham with her legs sticking out of a shopping bag. The provocative ad conveyed the clear message that, as one of the most photographed celebrities, she too was a product of the fashion industry just like a bag or a pair of shoes.
Jürgen Teller’s images are direct and honest. His aim is not to create beauty by enhancing what is there, but rather to show beauty in it’s raw and unfiltered form. His photographs are known for isolated surroundings with a washed-out, overexposed light, showing models in an intimate moment caught off-guard. Whether it’s Claudia Schiffer, Stephanie Seymour, Winona Ryder or his Aunt Elfriede, Jürgen Teller’s work is indiscriminately unmasking.
“I love his capacity to always speak his mind, often saying what others don’t even dare to think,” Helmut Lang.
Teller’s style is void of adornments. He never retouches his photos or tries to alter what is caught on film, which is becoming increasingly rare in the era of digitalization. One of Teller’s great achievements has been to humanize the person in the clothes. The model is no longer a pretty “clothes rack” but the personality and focus of the image. "I am interested in the person I am photographing," says Teller, "the world is beautiful as it is. Why should I retouch it?"
The dialog with his models is one of the most important aspects of Teller’s work. In fact, it is so relevant to him that he invites every model to an obligatory meal of spaghetti before doing a shoot. This way he can get to know them and get a better understanding of who they are. Teller deems the relationship between photographer and model as essential to his ability to take direct, honest photographs. “I depended heavily on the model’s personality; at least, I wanted to depend on this because I’m interested in personal reactions”. (Jürgen Teller, 2002).
Jürgen Teller is born on January 28, 1964 in Erlangen, Germany. He grows up in the small Franconian town of Bubenreuth as well as the near by city of Nürnberg.
After high school Teller begins an apprenticeship as a bow-maker. Following in his father’s footsteps, his choice is the result of a mix of guilty obligation and fear to disappoint. Having developed an allergy to the wood he used, Teller soon has to quit, a strike of fate that would change his life forever. This moment is a clear turning point in Teller’s life. In 1984, he enrolls in a photography program at the “Bayerische Staatslehranstalt für Photographie” in Munich, Germany.
As a young man in Germany, Teller is conscripted to obligatory military service. To avoid having to give up photography for the gun, he moves to London. "I thought I'd have to give up photography at 22," he told Index Magazine in 2000. "I just drove off to London. I didn't speak any English. All I knew about fashion came from looking at what the different bands were wearing."
For the first time, Teller is officially recognized for his work and awarded the Photography Prize at Festival de la Mode, Monaco. Some of his most famous portraits of the time are of Sinéad O'Connor for the single “Nothing Compares 2 You” taken in 1990, and of Kurt Cobain whom he accompanied on tour with his band Nirvana in 1991.
The German SZ Magazin commissioned Jürgen Teller for the series Versace-Heart in 1996. The model known for her androgynous, rough look appears naked with a heart drawn in lipstick on her chest that reads Versace. The campaign was so provocative and gritty that it gained immediate international recognition. It is one of Jürgen Teller’s most recognized works to date, as it made him a star over night.
An important year in Teller’s career, packed with important milestones. The Photographers' Gallery in London opens the first major solo exhibition of Teller’s work. Second, Teller directs his first widely received short film featuring Kate Moss called “Can I Own Myself”. And last but not least it is the year he first begins working with Marc Jacobs, a collaboration that will last till the present day. Teller is credited for having contributed extensively to Marc Jacobs’ success as a brand. His provocative and innovative advertising campaigns have gained the brand much attention and recognition.
A year after starting work with Marc Jacobs, Teller publishes a project called Go-Sees - a collection of Polaroid photographs taken of every model he cast in his studio between 1998 and 1999. The collection of over a 100 Polaroid’s made for a striking piece of art.
For the Marc Jacobs’ spring 2004 campaign, Teller photographed the then 65-year- old actress Charlotte Rampling at the Crillon Hotel in Paris. To give the whole thing more of a twist, Teller decided to include himself in the campaign as Rampling’s lover. Wearing tiny silver shorts, Teller is shown curled up in bed with the actress – a glimpse at a day in the life of two lovers. The story was so successful that Teller and Rampling reunited for a second round of photo sessions. This time Teller would be naked. The project took 6 months to shoot and resulted in a 28-image narrative of lust and excess. It would become one of Teller’s most celebrated works.
Teller participated in the 52nd Venice Biennale with his show A Poem About an Inland Sea in the Ukrainian Pavilion. Teller began participating in group and solo exhibitions in 1998 and continued to do so throughout his career. He would include work from his fashion photography and non-commissioned documentations of his life.
Teller is a loyal photographer, who always goes back to those he loves. Next to frequent collaborations with Kate Moss and Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood is a favorite of Teller’s. For the 2009 Vivienne Westwood campaign, Teller chose to shoot Westwood herself alongside beach babe Pamela Anderson. The outcome was: “this weird mix of flash and no flash, everything ugly and beautiful at the same time – a sort of mess,“ says Teller. All images shot for the story were later published in a book titled Election Day.
It is rare that a fashion photographer finds the balance between art and advertising in such an elegant way as Jürgen Teller. Though commissioned for commercial purposes, his work always tells the story of the people first. It is a dialog between himself and his subject, an intimate and honest moment caught on film. To no surprise did the Missoni family ask Teller to shoot three generations of the Missoni’s for the labels’ campaign.
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