April 14, 2024


Unique & Classy

50 Questions With Juergen Teller

9 min read

Lead ImageSelf-Portrait with pink shorts and balloons, Paris, 2017© Juergen Teller, All rights Reserved

It’s not an overstatement to say that Juergen Teller is one of the most influential photographers working today. Known for his idiosyncratically irreverent imagery, the influence of his work is so big, so all-encompassing, so completely total, that it’s hard to detatch it from the contemporary fashion photography of today. Emerging in the late 1980s, Teller rejected the fantasy of that decade was known for – the money, the excess – in place of a more unfiltered take on reality. In the intervening years since, he’s developed a reputation for his unfettered work that prizes grit over glitz, grunge over glamour; his photographs often appear unposed and unstaged, the result of a flash of a camera and a flash of inspiration.

The genius of Teller’s photographs is that they look like anyone can produce them – except nobody else can, despite the countless that have tried. He doesn’t rely on technology; he’s as happy to shoot on an iPhone – a tool we all have at our disposal – as a fancy, expensive camera. Similarly, he ditched film and switched to digital, entering an entirely new aesthetic era; when I ask him about film and its renewed popularity today, he seems genuinely flummoxed by it. Having honed his skill for nearly three and a half decades, Teller is a raw, unique and unreplicable talent, his work as resonant now as it was when he first began taking photos in the 80s.

This month, he throws open the doors to his largest-ever exhibition, i need to live, held in the fittingly grandiose setting of the Grand Palais and sponsored by Saint Laurent (with whom he frequently collaborates). The show will take visitors on a journey through his enormous archive, starting with a photograph of himself taken by his father, through decades’ worth of his personal and professional work, and culminating, cyclically, with photographs of his newborn daughter. There will also be images that are instantly recognisable – such as his portrait of Björk and her son, taken in Iceland’s Blue Lagoon in 1993 – and ones that have never been shown before; all displayed in a space designed by 6a architects, who imagined the photographer’s concrete-clad studio in west London.

On the occasion of the exhibition, Juergen Teller humoured us by agreeing to answer 50 quickfire questions, ranging from the one person he hasn’t yet been able to photograph and the best compliment he’s ever received.

1. Why did you choose to title your exhibition, I Need to Live? The second photograph in the show is a real photograph of a newspaper article referencing my father’s suicide and the third photograph is me on my father’s grave. The title is basically like: I need to live for myself because I’m so curious about life and about work and I want to do more things. I want to live for myself or my wife or my kids and not to go the way my father chose to go. I chose the other way, and that’s why the title is called I Need to Live, instead of the other direction.

2. Can you tell me the story behind that photograph of you on your father’s grave? It’s a photograph of my father’s grave at night, where I’m naked standing with one leg on a football and with a beer bottle and a cigarette in my hand. I was very close to my mother, she was very good at sports and we always talked about football, always watched it on TV. My father really didn’t like it at all. Later in life, I’m smoking and drinking, the same as my father, who was a heavy alcoholic. It was a way of getting closer to my dad because I really did not like him at all. I was not close to him at all but through the years, you reflect on it …  there must be a good, positive side of my father, and I wanted to feel closer to him.

3. Have you ever got into trouble with any of the images that you’ve taken? No. It’s always with the understanding of the subject and you have to morally see how far you can go and what’s morally right and what might be wrong. So, no, I haven’t.

4. Are you surprised to see how popular your Go-Sees series is today? I’m not surprised. I knew from the beginning that it was something really interesting and really good … That’s the simple answer.

5. Can you remember the first photo you ever took? Vaguely. It’s a landscape in Germany in the countryside where I grew up.

6. What’s the last photo you took? It was yesterday of my daughter.

7. When did you realise that you’ve made it? I don’t really think I’ve ever made it in those terms, but the first time I was sure that I wanted to be a photographer was when I studied photography and when I came to London.

8. How old would you have been when you had that realisation? I believe it was when I was 19 or 20.

9. Do you have any of your own photos hanging in your house? There is one but there’s a lot of other people’s work. It’s the one with Raquel Zimmerman and Charlotte Rampling in front of the Mona Lisa.

10. Are there any emerging photographers you’ve got your eye on? Not really, no.

11. What advice would you have for photographers starting out today? To do it slowly, to think a lot and to not think about money. And to really live your life first; to experience life and to draw on your life experience.

12. Do you have a favourite iPhone editing app? I don’t even know exactly what that is. I don’t really have an app.

13. What do you think about the resurgence of film? The fact that everyone’s shooting on film these days? I don’t understand it at all. Technology has become so good and film is so much more of a headache, so much more expensive, and such a hindrance. It’s much slower too. It doesn’t make any sense and it’s also not where the world is now.

14. What role has your German heritage and growing up in Germany played in your work? I don’t think in these terms. For me, it’s just, I am me and I grew up where I grew up.

15. Is there anyone that you haven’t shot who you’d still really like to? I think it would be the Pope because he’s photogenic! [Laughs.]

What advice would you have for photographers starting out today? To do it slowly, to think a lot and to not think about money. And to really live your life first; to experience life and to draw on your life experience“ – Juergen Teller

16. Is that anyone who you said no to shooting that you now regret? No, because if it really means so much, it would come around again. There have been times when I really couldn’t do it for example. I got asked to photograph Macron but unfortunately, I was in Japan at the time.

17. You collaborated with Vivienne Westwood for years. What was your favourite thing about her? Her spirit, her mind, her way of thinking, her complete originality, her uniqueness – she was a wonderful person.

18. What advice would you have for your 16-year-old self? Do the same thing again.

19. What is the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid you? That I’m doing good work. Boris Mikhailov gave me a really beautiful compliment recently. I showed him this shot of this project I was doing, which is one of the new books that I’m publishing called The Myth and he said, “Oh, I wish I would have thought about something like that.” That was a beautiful compliment.

20. If your house was on fire, and you only had time to grab one of your books, which would it be? The Myth.

21. Why is nudity a part of your work, particularly in your self-portraiture? It’s an honest way – the purest way – of showing yourself. As a fashion photographer, I’m always dealing with clothes, so I like to be completely free from that. And I actually find skin beautiful to look at, and beautiful to photograph, and there are so many nuances in the fat and the muscles and the shapes.

22. Do you have a favourite pair of trainers? I always have Asics. I started wearing them a long time ago. They’re extremely comfortable and look OK.

23. What’s your most treasured possession? Probably my phone in terms of the camera, not the phone itself. It’s such a wonderful tool these days – you don’t need to have a camera and it’s just excellent to go for a walk with your wife and your kids and you can photograph it there.

24. What’s your greatest extravagance? Really, it’s the same thing.

25. What’s your number one tip for taking a photograph on an iPhone? Press the button.

26. Helpful. Do you believe in God? Difficult question. I really don’t know.

27. Do you believe in life after death? I don’t know that either.

28. What’s your greatest fear? Losing my partner.

29. What’s the last thing someone did to make you laugh? My daughter woke up in such a sweet way. She got up and then she smiled at me and we smiled and laughed together.

30. What’s the one book that you’d like to read again for the first time? A Murakami.

31. What’s the last film that made you cry? Probably a really stupid film on an aeroplane.

32. Who would you get to direct a film about your life? [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, if he was still alive.

33. Who would you get to play you? Jack Nicholson.

34. What song is guaranteed to get you on the dance floor? Nina Simone, Here Comes the Sun.

35. Is there anything you collect? Not really. I have artworks here and there, but I’m not really a collector in general terms.

Why is nudity a part of your work, particularly in your self-portraiture? It’s an honest way – the purest way – of showing yourself. As a fashion photographer, I’m always dealing with clothes, so I like to be completely free from that“ – Juergen Teller

36. Where do you feel happiest? With my wife in the forest.

37. What’s your favourite place in London? My studio.

38. What is one thing that is overrated? Money.

39. What is one thing that is underrated? Freedom.

40. And what is one thing that is due a comeback? German football should have a comeback.

41. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? My indecisiveness.

42. What is the trait you most deplore and others? Lack of humour.

43. Who is your hero in fiction? I don’t know.

44. Who’s your hero in real life? I don’t really have heroes.

45. Who is someone you admire then? Boris Mikhailov.

46. What do you hate about the art world? I don’t hate the art world but it’s dominated by extremely rich people, which makes it very conservative and boring. 

47. What do you love about it? There’s space for fantasy and freedom; for people to create incredible, beautiful things.

48. If you had to photograph one person for the rest of your life, who would it be? My wife.

49. What do you think you would do if you weren’t a photographer? I’ve thought about that but have never come to a conclusion. I simply don’t know.

50. Did you have a dream growing up? Yes, when I was small, I wanted to be a footballer.

i need to live by Juergen Teller is on show at the Grand Palais in Paris from 16 December 2023 – 9 January 2024.

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