Last year Juergen Teller, a German photographer, flew halfway around the world to photograph Rihanna at a medical cannabis facility near Vancouver. But the pop star was ill and didn’t show up. Undeterred, he drafted in two local Canadian girls and shot them against a backdrop of primeval forest. They had no clothes on, and only two props – some hula hoops and a copy of Harper’s Bazaar featuring Ri-Ri on the cover.
“Waiting for Rihanna” fills the final, climactic room of “Juergen Teller: Enjoy Your Life!”, an exhibition of his recent work currently on show at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin. The playful subversiveness of the series is typical of a photographer who once posed naked on a bed with Charlotte Rampling and slipped his own son into a group portrait of the victorious German football team at the 2014 World Cup. People who think Germans lack a sense of humour are probably not familiar with Teller’s work.
But you don’t become one of the world’s most sought-after photographers merely by playing the prankster. Over his 30-year career, Teller has shot advertising campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Helmut Lang, Rei Kawabuko of Comme des Garçons and Vivienne Westwood. Yet his work – which is found in the collections of the International Centre for Photography in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, among others – upends expectations. Much has been written about the politics of fashion and celebrity photography: the way models are objectified and idealised, typically by male photographers; the violence latent in its language (“shoot” and “capture”). With his willingness to involve himself in his raw, unpolished photos, as in his series “Kanye, Juergen & Kim” (2015), Teller breaks down the conventional relationship between photographer and subject and collapses the distance between viewer and viewed. What might otherwise have been exploitative or one-sided becomes instead the celebration of a relationship, an encounter between human beings.
Teller has always refused to draw a boundary between his commercial portraiture and his fine-art photography. Nonetheless, the latter is often highly autobiographical, with pictures featuring his elderly mother or meditating upon his alcoholic father, who committed suicide at the age of 47. Whether shooting fashion models or family, Teller approaches his subjects with the same idiosyncratic blend of transgressiveness and empathy.
“Kanye, Juergen & Kim, No.70”
For the series “Kanye, Juergen & Kim”, made in 2015, Teller cheekily inserted himself in between pop culture’s biggest power couple. The location was a French château, but Teller deliberately avoided its plush interiors and manicured gardens in favour of the unloved outskirts of the grounds. In this photo, a dolled-up Kim Kardashian bares the buttocks that made her famous, but having her pose in the scrubby wasteland makes it both comically bathetic and oddly spontaneous – much like the photographs of Teller, who appears regularly in the series in shorts and bobble hat, atop a pile of rubble or wading through a stream.
“Self portrait” (2015)
Teller sends up the fashion industry’s impossible standards of beauty by criticising almost every aspect of this self-portrait. His comments, scrawled on to the photo in felt-tip pen, range from the plausible (“Retouch Stomach”) to the absurd (“change head”). Although taken to a ludicrous extreme here, this exercise in ruthless self-examination is typical of Teller’s approach.
“Vivienne Westwood No.3” (2009)
This photo of Vivienne Westwood posing coyly in the manner of an odalisque attests to the trust that exists between Teller and his subjects. It’s hard to say what’s most arresting about this image: the sexualised portrayal of an elderly person (Westwood is 76 years old), the contrast between pale white and bright orange, or the fact that the godmother of punk looks almost genteel on the 18th-century chaise longue.
“Peter Lindbergh kissing my Mum” (2016)
Teller’s personal and professional worlds collide in this photo. Peter Lindbergh is a German fashion photographer most famous for ushering in the era of the supermodel with his January 1990 cover of Vogue, which featured Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Tatjana Patitz. His commercial work is notable for its minimalism – he often shoots in black and white and prefers his models to look as if they aren’t wearing make-up. He is snapped here in an apparently intimate moment with Teller’s mother. Despite its raw and unvarnished appearance, the image is carefully staged: Teller is casting Lindbergh, his role model, as a father figure.
“Eva Herzigova, Mit dem Teller nach Bonn, No.3” (2016)
Teller’s recent work features plates as a form of punning self-reference (Teller is German for plate), but also as a homage to his hero Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer who was drawn to them as a subject. Here, the supermodel Eva Herzigova holds a display plate bearing a cheaply reproduced image of Teller with his baby son. The tacky knick-knack, which stares out at the viewer, upstages the glamorous Herzigova, who is used to being the centre of attention. But in submitting to the joke, she becomes humanised.
Juergen Teller: Enjoy Your Life! Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, until July 3rd