Juergen Teller, the photographer, has spent much of this summer Tuesday editing a shoot commissioned by W Magazine about the art world in New York. The star of the shoot is the 47-year-old actress Tilda Swinton, who has been dressed up as everyone from an artist to a gallerist to an insecure collector mid–Botox procedure. She’s accompanied by artists like Rachel Feinstein and collectors like Renée Rockefeller. The whole thing looks fairly dark; the lighting is not gentle or flattering, and if any of the subjects has a pore, or a sagging breast, well, there it is.
“Most fashion photography is done by gay people finding women sexy,” Teller says, “which is sort of not sexy at all, at least to a heterosexual man. She’s so retouched, so airbrushed, without any human response at all, and, well, you don’t really want to fuck a doll.”
Teller, who is a heterosexual man, is sitting on the patio of his West London studio-house wearing mirrored aviator glasses, spiky hair, a shiny gold chain around his neck, and a great big Rolex on his wrist. He’s circular, with a round head, round belly, and round blue eyes, and he smokes almost constantly—Marlboro Lights with one of those giant European SMOKING KILLS warnings on the pack. The building, which he renovated completely two years ago, features a complicated number of levels: The garage is below the living room and the photo studio is sort of below and beside all that, and from the studio you have a perfect, head-to-toe view of the outdoor shower.
“I just turn the page,” Teller says of those very glossy fashion shots. “It doesn’t really interest me very much. My work has nothing to do with that. I just really like women, and I like men, and I like children, and I like eating, and I like doing everything. It’s something real. I’m for the individual human being, not some plastic figure some gay guy thought out. That’s valid for something, but it’s not my cup of tea.”
There is grit to a Juergen Teller photograph, even when it’s one of his lucrative high-fashion ads. A kind of raw, what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility that shows the sometimes very ugly side of a supposedly beautiful business. The photographs are undeniably sexy, but sexy in the sense that you can practically smell them. And they don’t, necessarily, smell like expensive designer perfume.
All this rawness is not presented as critique; “Look,” Teller says, “I have a Mercedes. I wear a Rolex watch. I have no problem with the selling of things.” Rather, it’s offered up mostly as realism: Here, the pictures say, this is what people look like. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes tragic, sometimes kind of gross. The pictures can be funny, too. Commissioned to shoot fine jewelry for Phillips auction house, Teller piled diamonds on members of his own family, from his infant son, Ed (adorably bundled into a Motörhead onesie), to Uncle Arthur, visiting from Germany at the ripe old age of 73.
“Why not?” Teller says, deadpan. “My family likes jewelry.”
He photographed Angela Lindvall with a mound of white Champagne foam coming out of her crotch and named it New York, Paris, Milan I’m Coming. He named another series “Fashion Wank.”
Rather than saturating the colors and bleeding his image off the edge of a page, as is typical for a fashion shoot, Teller uses a raw flash that blasts his subjects and keeps his colors soft and somewhat muted. And the pictures are always surrounded by loads of white space; for the W story, Teller will leave a number of pages blank. Sometimes the models in Teller’s pictures are tiny and distant, the color and sheen of their clothes nearly imperceptible.
But perhaps most rare for fashion photography, Teller’s pictures are absolutely never retouched. “I’m interested in the person I photograph,” he says. “The world is so beautiful as it is, there’s so much going on which is sort of interesting. It’s just so crazy, so why do I have to put some retouching on it? It’s just pointless to me.”
"There are elements of Beckett in Juergen’s work,” says Dennis Freedman, the creative director of W. “It’s a very serious business, but there’s no question that if you think about life in a certain way, you come to the realization that there are deep questions about what we are all doing here. Juergen touches on the futility of it all—of trying to look beautiful, the futility of trying to keep up your sagging breasts or of fitting into a certain dress. So much fashion photography builds this false sense and maintains the myth. Juergen’s pictures cut through all that, but they’re not depressing. What’s really depressing is not Juergen’s pictures, but the mindless objectification of women as clothes hangers who pose and wear clothes, but there’s nothing to the picture apart from that it’s a sales tool.”