An Interview with Juergen Teller
The brilliant German artist and photographer recently took on the digital revolution without tarnishing his radical aesthetic. What’s his formula?
OLIVIER ZAHM — So tell me the story, Juergen, of this show at the Musée d’Orsay, “Masculine/Masculine. The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day.” Did you know one of your self-portraits was being included in this show to incarnate the crisis of masculinity, alongside a picture by Eadweard Muybridge, sculptures by Auguste Rodin, and paintings by Paul Cézanne, Gustave Moreau and Egon Schiele?
JUERGEN TELLER — No, I didn’t know anything about this show… I was in Paris at the fashion shows and Ashley Heath, the editor of Pop, texted me: “Oh my god, are you aware? I’ve just been to the “Masculine/Masculine” show. It’s fantastic to see a self-portrait of you in this context!” And he says, “Do you realize you’re hanging next to Egon Schiele and Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Cézanne, Rodin? And I was like… “Huh? What are you talking about?”
LILY MCMENAMY — The Musée d’Orsay didn’t ask your permission?
JUERGEN TELLER — I can’t remember! I sold this picture to a museum in Munich after a show there in 2002, and they lent it to the Musée d’Orsay. I was in the middle of photographing this young French actress, Marine Vacth of Jeune & Jolie, in my hotel room. I wanted to finish as quickly as possible, go see this show, and take her along.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What picture of you was it?
JUERGEN TELLER — A naked self-portrait, in black-and-white, with Snow White. This was in my grandfather’s fairy-tale room, which he carved in wood for us.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s one of your first self-portraits?
JUERGEN TELLER — Yes, that’s right. My mum saw me taking naked pictures of myself in this fairy-tale room, and she gave me such a hard time: “Why are you naked here? This is disgusting, horrible, and embarrassing!” I was so proud to show my mother this naked self-portrait being presented in a museum next to all these masters! She just shook her head.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Were you prepared for being seen as a contemporary masculine icon?
JUERGEN TELLER — Not at all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This self-portrait seems to express something of the crisis of masculinity today, because it’s not really a flattering picture.
JUERGEN TELLER — You have to ask them, I have no idea. I just take the picture!
OLIVIER ZAHM — In some other self-portraits you took for Arena Homme+ after the show, you’re shown exercising with your personal trainer. You seem to be further reinforcing the pathetic nature of masculinity today, the effort we have to make to look like real men…
JUERGEN TELLER — I was just inspired and stimulated by this show about masculinity to make new work. That’s what I find exciting. Something happens and you get a sort of a snowball effect of new ideas and so on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you choose to photograph yourself exercising? Out of vanity?
JUERGEN TELLER — No, I certainly don’t look attractive in these images. In this show and other masculine pictures, you only see perfectly shaped bodies. I was interested in the actual event, how much effort is involved. I’d never seen pictures like that. As a kid and teenager I played a lot of sports, it was my life, until later on that gave way to eating and drinking too much. My body needs exercise, and I started having problems with my lower back from too many years of taking photographs. I make pictures out of experiences; having a personal trainer certainly has an impact.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s an anti-model of masculinity. But I understand it in a way. You’re developing some sort of obsession with sports, because you also have this footballer look at night, which is really funny and incredible. Everyone’s trying to be the best-looking person at the party, and you just show up in your shorts.
LILY MCMENAMY — Trying to be anti-fashion.
JUERGEN TELLER — No, I’m not trying to be anti-fashion at all. I don’t even think about that. I’m not even considering fashion or anti-fashion. I’m thinking: how am I comfortable and what suits me?
LILY MCMENAMY — It’s more comfortable to wear an athletic look at night?
JUERGEN TELLER — Yes, that suits me, so I do it. And I sweat a lot, so I don’t want to be going to a crowded place at night with a lot of clothes on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does this look stem from your childhood dream of being a footballer? Or from the Marc Jacobs ad campaign with Charlotte Rampling, in which you include yourself wearing this kind of getup?
JUERGEN TELLER — Probably both. It started with the Marc Jacobs advertisement. Marc knew I was a very close friend of Charlotte, and he said at the time it would be an honor if she would be in his next campaign. I said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen. She would never endorse a product or a brand.” But I got excited about it, so I looked for a way to convince her to do it. I thought, How about if I’m the male model? Then she might be intrigued. It could be a piece of work instead of just her modeling a handbag. She might be interested in the process of self-portraits with me. So I called her and she said, “Oh yeah, that sounds really interesting.” And so I’m running with this idea and I’m super-excited and then on the night before, I have a look at the men’s clothes… It hadn’t occurred to me that I’m far too fat to wear these clothes!
LILY MCMENAMY — Manorexia…
JUERGEN TELLER — I’m like, what am I going to do! I found these silver shorts and thought, this is the only thing I’ll fit into. And I also thought they actually looked quite good. But I couldn’t fit into any of the shirts. Charlotte came and said, “What are you going to do? What are you going to wear?” I just went in the bathroom and came out wearing shorts. She said, “Are you kidding me? This is what you’re going to wear? What are you going to do?” I sat back and said, “Actually, I don’t know. With these shorts and nothing else on, I thought I’d just kiss you and fondle your breasts.” And she’s like…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Nothing. Silence.
LILY MCMENAMY — She gave you the look?
JUERGEN TELLER — She gave me the look. And I’m thinking, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever said in my whole life. Like, how stupid am I? I started to sweat. She went into her handbag, got a cigarillo out, lit it, and said, “Okay, let’s start. I’ll tell you when to stop.” I was like, oh my god this is exciting! And that was the beginning of the trousers.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So your look today is from a picture?
JUERGEN TELLER — It’s from that, yeah.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you’re living in your own world, creating the life you want to live. Is this why you used the term “fairy tale” to describe your work in an article? You create a story. It’s not a snapshot.
JUERGEN TELLER — No, I never do snapshots. But it all comes from real-life experiences. Even when I go on holiday with my kids, I think about an idea to shoot with them and I execute it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re one of the rare photographers who shoots older women like Vivienne Westwood, Charlotte Rampling, Lily’s mother, and so on. Why do you like to shoot them?
JUERGEN TELLER — They’re my friends, as simple as that. I like spending time with them. I respect them. I talk to them. I am attracted to them. They think. They do good work. I like working with them. They stand for an attitude about life I recognize and share. I believe we share a profound understanding of and respect for each other.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How are you able to convince a woman of this age, let’s say Vivienne Westwood, to get naked in front of your lens?
JUERGEN TELLER — Trust. Conviction within my argument. Sweetness. Charm. And knowing it makes sense. We’ve been friends and respected each other for more than 20 years. That’s important. We were shooting the campaign, we’re having a meeting in my studio, and I show her all these pictures. The campaign was with Pamela Anderson. It worked out really well, and she says how fantastic these pictures are. I’m excited and suddenly I realize I’ve known Vivienne for so long and have photographed her so many times. Suddenly it’s obvious to me that I should photograph her naked… Because she does look extraordinary. She looks fantastic. She’s an extraordinary woman.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, she is striking. Piercing eyes. But it’s not easy for an older woman to be naked.
LILY MCMENAMY — It’s easier for Pamela Anderson.
JUERGEN TELLER — I have no interest in photographing Pamela Anderson naked. That doesn’t interest me at all.
LILY MCMENAMY — Well, it’s quite amazing with the fake breasts.
JUERGEN TELLER — Let’s come back to Vivienne. Then she’s like, “I’d never thought of that, I trust you completely. Maybe, actually, it would be really interesting for me to see how I look naked.” And I thought, this is exactly how I think when I photograph myself: I want to see how it looks. She said, “Just come on a Sunday, I’ll cook dinner for you, and we’ll do the picture.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — How is it that after 25, 30 years of photography you still get so excited by your work?
JUERGEN TELLER — I always have the same answer: as long as you’re excited about life, there’s always something to photograph. There’s always a story to tell. I also enjoy writing sometimes. And so I’m expanding certain ways of dealing with myself, either through writing or taking pictures. But there are always moments where you’re drained and you think: this is it, it’s over again. And you kind of have to actually let it go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s scary.
JUERGEN TELLER — Yeah. And it always comes in phases. Right now I’m in a really good phase.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you deal with the periods of anxiety and doubt?
JUERGEN TELLER — You have to realize that you have to take the shitty moments and the boring moments and the uncertain moments and accept them to be able to do something good again. You have to. You can’t be on a high all the time. You have to be clever about retracting, and when it’s there you have to run for the train.
LILY MCMENAMY — And it just happens by chance. How do you stay excited by life? I’m so intrigued.
JUERGEN TELLER — Sometimes a person can make photography exciting again… For example, you Lily, meeting you and shooting you for the Marc Jacobs campaign in Central Park made me very excited.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’ve shot the Marc Jacobs advertisements for the last 15 years now!
JUERGEN TELLER — No! 16 years.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you have no art director? It’s all your ideas?
JUERGEN TELLER — Me and Marc.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Marc will come with some ideas for models, but then you have to deal with them.
JUERGEN TELLER — I have to imagine the situation. Yeah, and sometimes Marc is more involved and sometimes not.
LILY MCMENAMY — Can you detach yourself and do the commercial work as just a job?
JUERGEN TELLER — No, unfortunately not. I wish I could. I’m always too much in it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why are you so personally involved when you shoot an advertising campaign?
JUERGEN TELLER — I have to be, because that’s all I do. I give everything all the time. I can’t be a photographer who does a boring job for money.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m very interested in your relationship with your wife, Sadie. When do you need her on a shoot?
JUERGEN TELLER — She only comes occasionally when I need her, when I think it’s important for me and it’s important for the subject. For example, she executed and helped me do all the Louis XV series with Charlotte Rampling. She was very important. I needed her mental help because I’m shy, and I had to be naked with Charlotte, who was also naked. She helped me on the Vivienne shoot, too. She helps me to feel more secure.
LILY MCMENAMY — Your wife’s presence makes the shoot more platonic.
JUERGEN TELLER — I can go much further if my wife is there. And she also has some extremely good ideas. I mean, my wife is an excellent art director.
LILY MCMENAMY — She pushes you to do weird stuff, no?
JUERGEN TELLER — I remember lying down with her. I was naked and Charlotte was in this fur thing, and I was like, oh God, that was good, we were just done. I thought, what are we going to do now? And she suddenly says, “Why don’t you just suck Charlotte’s toes?” I was like, “What? I can’t do that!” And she was like, “Come on, just suck her toes.” I was like, okay, and she was just laughing. Charlotte was like “Hahaha,” and I thought, “That’s weird!” But it was really good!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you say, in the contemporary context of constantly retouched pictures, that your work is provocative?
JUERGEN TELLER — It’s not. It’s something sensitive. I shoot people as they are, and they feel good about themselves. I don’t think it’s healthy for men and women to look at retouched beauty all the time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But why are you one of the only ones able to resist that convention today?
JUERGEN TELLER — I just do what I believe in.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It wasn’t like that in the mid-’90s. Now it’s more conformist.
JUERGEN TELLER — In general, we’re living in such a conservative world, we can’t do anything anymore. The reality of our world is sad, and it’s romantic and it’s beautiful, but it’s also tragic and comical, hopeful and ridiculous. And I try to photograph all this.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s surprising how you are one of the very rare photographers with a sense of humor and tragedy at the same time.
JUERGEN TELLER — Hmm.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you don’t compromise.
JUERGEN TELLER — Yeah, and I don’t get caught up with money either.
LILY MCMENAMY — Now you’ve got total freedom. Do you say no to jobs?
JUERGEN TELLER — Of course, I say no to most things when I don’t have total freedom. What’s the true luxury in life? To have time. To be able to think about things. And what is most important for me is to reflect on my work, to produce interesting work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Being able to say no is not only an artistic decision, but also a political one.
JUERGEN TELLER — You have to know what you want and what’s good for you.
LILY MCMENAMY — But now, don’t you have too much freedom? Isn’t it too easy?
JUERGEN TELLER — No, you always have to fight. That never stops. Also, I take a lot of time for my own books and shows. For example, I was practically only working on my ICA Woo! book for three months. I re-photographed the wall of pictures that was like a tapestry of posters glued on the wall. I got completely obsessed, photographed it, re-photographed it, making double pages. And then with the digital files, color-correcting each file three or four times. The whole thing took me so much time, I didn’t do much of anything else.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The thing is that you took the time to do your own book, and that makes a difference because a lot of photographers are not really involved in the process until the very end. Is it like that for every book you do?
JUERGEN TELLER — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why are books so important for you compared to other photographers? Is it because you love books? You have so many.
LILY MCMENAMY — Posterity. As opposed to ephemeral magazines.
JUERGEN TELLER — This is where I can basically have complete control: with my own exhibitions and my own books. They have my name on them. From beginning to end, it’s my statement. It’s me. I can’t give it to a graphic designer and let him do his thing. I mean, what the fuck is that? This is me. This is an artist’s book. This doesn’t mean I do everything on my own.
LILY MCMENAMY — Do you consider yourself an artist?
JUERGEN TELLER — This question doesn’t interest me at all. I’m just trying to do good work. Everybody seems to be an artist these days and, personally, very little work actually speaks to me. This convention of labels and being boxed in doesn’t appeal to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Didn’t you have a problem with fashion photography for a while, thinking that you were not good as a fashion photographer?
JUERGEN TELLER — I always thought I was good at it. When I was younger I did have a problem with the term “fashion photographer.” Not anymore. Call me whatever you want.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You started as a portrait photographer.
JUERGEN TELLER — I started by doing a lot of portraits for musicians when I arrived in London. I did record covers. I thought that was a pretty healthy and honest way of making money as a photographer. Musicians I liked used to ask me to do their portraits and were paying me for it. I thought it was wonderful, actually. This made sense.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It started from your love of music.
LILY MCMENAMY — Do you still listen to music?
JUERGEN TELLER — Not much. I don’t have enough time for films and music, I have to say. Because I have to prioritize. I have two kids. When do you have time to go see a movie? You have dinner with your wife, or you play with your kids, or you work, work, work. It’s a luxury to go to a movie. I used to go when I wasn’t so busy in the afternoon. When you get older and when your responsibilities get bigger, and with the children, you run out of time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But at the same time you have to photograph all of these actors and actresses. It’s quite ironic.
JUERGEN TELLER — Yes, most of the time I don’t know about their latest film or album… But I meet these artists on a more human and normal level. You’re a person, I’m a person, and they’re treated like that. But now I have an iPad. I’ve started downloading movies, and I’m beginning to catch up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s not only that you get older, it’s also that today there’s more and more work for everyone to do. It’s nonstop: people want everything to be done immediately.
JUERGEN TELLER — If you don’t email immediately, it’s like, “What’s wrong with you, loser?” But, then, “Hang on a minute, I’ve got to think about this a bit before I respond!” Everything is so fast these days.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m very curious about your switch to digital, because you were famous for sticking to film…
JUERGEN TELLER — Yes, to control my prints, to really work in a darkroom.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What happened? Were you forced to go there?
JUERGEN TELLER — Absolutely not. Nobody forces me to do anything. I got interested in it by myself. I guess I was bored at home, waiting for my son, and I started…
LILY MCMENAMY — To do iPhone pictures.
JUERGEN TELLER — Yes, to do iPhone pictures! Self-portraits. There’s one photograph in the ICA show. I got so excited about it. But I really discovered the possibilities of digital photography while I was shooting food created by the chef Antonio Guida for a book for the Il Pellicano hotel. I couldn’t get close enough, and I was dissatisfied with what my camera could achieve. I had this cheap digital camera. I tried it, zooming in on the plate, and I was like, oh my God, this is amazing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What camera did you use?
JUERGEN TELLER — It was an Olympus Pen. A small, shitty one. I had just bought it around the corner.
LILY MCMENAMY — Did you go: “Ah! My aesthetic!”
JUERGEN TELLER — No! I just thought, oh, I’m excited. When I’m excited, that’s my aesthetic. It doesn’t really matter. I don’t want to be a slave to my camera. The camera is always just like my car: it just gets me from A to B. I don’t have a fetish about cars. It just drives me safely from one point to another. And this is what the camera does. I make each picture look how I want it to look.
LILY MCMENAMY — Your integrity stays.
JUERGEN TELLER — When I started with a bigger camera, with the Canon 5D — which I used to photograph Lily for Comme des Garçons — I realized why all these people use digital: it’s so easy to take a good picture!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is it shocking for people to see you embracing digital photography when your name is so associated with analog?
JUERGEN TELLER — Yeah! For example, when I shot Kristen, Lily’s mum, in Hydra for 032c last summer, she was worried about me using the Canon 5D. She was afraid it would look bad. But I wanted to try it. I thought, fuck it, I’m doing this thing digital. I don’t want to be this analog genius forever. It doesn’t fucking matter, and nobody thinks when they look at the magazine, “Oh, this is digital!”
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a big change…
JUERGEN TELLER — You know, my midlife crisis within my work is over. I’m going digital, too! But I won’t go entirely digital. I’ll chose depending on the story. I can do great iPhone pictures, or have a small digital pocket camera, or mix the two. Or use the 5D. But still, having said that, sometimes I’m still using analog, like for this W Hollywood actor’s portfolio. I chose to mostly shoot analog because I think it’s kinder. Digital is so sharp!
OLIVIER ZAHM — The sharpness is surprising. It’s almost unreal. You become artificially obsessed and want to have the picture perfectly focused all the time…
JUERGEN TELLER — But next week I’m shooting the Celine campaign. If you look at the colorful clothes, the collection — this will look good in digital.
LILY MCMENAMY — Getting with the times.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you look at the screen often during a shoot?
JUERGEN TELLER — I just quickly look to see whether something is on it. The problem is that I can’t see it. I have to put my glasses on and then I’m not shooting anymore. So I’d rather look at what’s in front of me and look at the light and the subject. Then I don’t have to look at it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It means you shoot digital like analog. You don’t look at your screen to check if it’s a good picture.
JUERGEN TELLER — No I don’t. I know when it’s a good picture. It’s instinct. I also don’t want to look at the pictures immediately afterward. If I shoot for two days, I’m not going back home or to the hotel to look at what I did during the day… I’d rather reflect and think about the next day. I don’t want to spend the evening looking at the same shit I was photographing. I want to have a bit of time off and maybe have a drink with the people I’ve photographed or just enjoy the place. It’s good to look at all the pictures, film or digital, with fresh eyes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I wanted to ask you about the book of reader letters that Die Zeit received when you did a column for them every week. Why did you republish some of them?
JUERGEN TELLER — I was doing a column — one page, one photograph with a text I wrote — for a year and a half, and they said, “Oh my god, we’re getting so many reader letters. They’re quite hardcore.” And I said, “Oh really? You know what? I don’t want to know about them, but please, over the year and a half, collect them and give them to me at the end. While I’m doing it, I don’t want to know about it.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you learn anything about yourself?
JUERGEN TELLER — It actually made me more secure about what I’m doing!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Wasn’t it depressing to read all these criticisms of your work by people who don’t know about photography?
JUERGEN TELLER — I had to read them all — 250 sheets of paper on my lap. It was a lot. I’m sitting down reading them and I’m thinking, oh God, oh God. Oh! And for half an hour I got really depressed, and I thought, am I a really bad person? Am I a really bad, terrible, disgusting human being? And it really got me confused and depressed. And then suddenly, I thought, I’ve got to go to the sauna. I kind of had to have a shower to clean myself, and then in the sauna, I thought, actually, I’m going to use this, and I’ll call it “literature!” And I published this book. It was excellent!
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s exposing your work to another level of reader reaction.
JUERGEN TELLER — Because it’s not like Purple, 032c, or The Journal.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s mass-market.
JUERGEN TELLER — It’s a mass readership of two million people in Germany. It’s an intellectual newspaper, it’s not a trashy newspaper, so it’s on a certain level. But the way they cut me up, Jesus Christ. Of course, it was also a huge success, but people who liked it didn’t necessarily write letters.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I was surprised when you told me in LA two weeks ago that you’re still nervous when you go on a shoot. How is that possible after almost 30 years of work and success?
JUERGEN TELLER — Yeah, it happens a lot of the time, because it’s always something new, and you can’t control everything, and I’m also relying on the subject. I always want to do a good job. I don’t want to do a normal job. I want to do something I’m really excited about and that makes me nervous, because I don’t know if this will happen. It depends on so many things.
LILY MCMENAMY — What if the subject doesn’t engage with you?
JUERGEN TELLER — Exactly.
LILY MCMENAMY — Do you have to push them?
JUERGEN TELLER — No, I would never push anyone. That’s something I wouldn’t be ready to do. If I feel the other person doesn’t want to get pushed, I find another way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you hide your insecurity or does it go away when you start to shoot?
JUERGEN TELLER — No, I don’t try to look different from what I feel. I think my strength is also to show the subject that I can be nervous, too, and maybe that right at that moment, I don’t know what I am doing — and I ask for help.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You make them comfortable.
JUERGEN TELLER — Of course, but it’s very much about me. It’s very much from my aura, I believe. That’s the only explanation I have. I don’t work at it. I have it. Do you see what I mean? And I think I’m shy and I’m sensitive and people see that, and sometimes I push it when it’s the right moment to push.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you really shy?
JUERGEN TELLER — I think so. But when it’s the right moment, I’m not shy at all. It’s my childish enthusiasm. I can make things happen. I never want to lose that. Life is so serious and life is so boring. Daily life is such a drag, isn’t it? If I learned something from my dad’s suicide, it’s that you only have one life. I could’ve gone down that road. And I didn’t.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did photography help you not to be negative?
JUERGEN TELLER — When I was 24, he killed himself. And I could have gone that way, because I can be quite negative and depressed too. But you have a responsibility for your own life. I said to myself, “I’ve got one shot in this life, I want to do some good work, and I want to have fun. I want to do something exciting.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — And is that where your obsession with photography comes from? Because you never stop taking pictures. Is it a way to create your own world, to protect yourself from negativity?
JUERGEN TELLER — Photography absolutely helps me to make my life exciting. I actually shoot very rarely. It takes so long to actually set up an idea and follow things through afterward. You can make things happen that would never happen normally.