Which, of course, in the complicated, push-pull world of commercial seduction, makes them extremely effective as sales tools. “I’m interested in what attracts somebody to a product,” says Teller. “Sometimes it’s not necessarily the product itself. It’s similar to when you go to the cinema and you watch a movie and you’re like, Oh my God. I want to feel something like that. That’s what I have as a double-page spread in a magazine. It’s not I want to be that. It’s I want to feel that.”
Models are not of tremendous interest to Teller. They were, once: In 1998, Teller found himself so deluged with models landing on his doorstep (agencies were hoping he’d “discover” another Kate Moss, as he was one of the first photographers to document her crooked beauty) that he began keeping a record of the visits. He put an ad in a paper for even more models, and suddenly his doorbell was ringing without interruption. He snapped each girl, standing so vulnerable there on his stoop. The result was a gallery show of the photographs—each printed identically small—and eventually a book called Go Sees: Girls Knocking on My Door.
“I wanted to show everything,” he says of the experience. “Some people are very at ease with themselves and enjoy being a model, and you can see that in the pictures. Some people are not, and you can see how insecure they are. It’s really dangerous and weird. And I wanted to show the kind of power you have as a photographer, and the dodgy side of that. You have to be correct with them; otherwise, it’s just awful.”
So Teller shot them all: Sophie Dahl dropped by, chubby and adolescent, and so did Eva Herzigova.
These days, Teller prefers quote-unquote interesting women: Cindy Sherman, Rachel Feinstein, Laura Dern. If he does shoot models, they are older (ideally over 20): Mariacarla Boscono, Angela Lindvall, Kristen McMenamy. They are women with stories and strength. Teller knows them already, or he gets to. They often eat together, preferably something sloppy. Meal sharing, he explains, is deeply important to his process—spaghetti nero, with its muddying effect on the lips and teeth, has become, for Teller, something of a leitmotif.
“These women have experience in life and you can really talk to them about what you’re trying to achieve,” he explains. “It makes a hell of a lot more sense to make an ad which creates a fantasy about those women than about a bunch of young Russian models looking all doodly-doo.” For a recent Vivienne Westwood campaign, Teller all but ignored the model and instead photographed Westwood herself. She appears pale and crinkly and not-skinny and absolutely, completely self-possessed. She is gorgeous. But also—and this is important—he has not exactly shattered the rules of fashion: What she represents is every bit as unattainable, if not more so, as being tall and thin and 16.
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.
Teller arrived in London just over twenty years ago, a befuddled German photo-school grad with a thing for grunge. “I wanted to learn English,” he says of his reasons for leaving Germany, “and I didn’t want to join the army.”
He started out photographing musicians like Björk and Kurt Cobain. His photographs appeared mostly in magazines like i-D and The Face, which were, in late-eighties London, as influential as any style magazines have ever been.
He met and fell in love with a stylist named Venetia Scott, a square-jawed, no-nonsense beauty who looks something like a photograph by Dorothea Lange. They worked together, slowly sorting out what they considered beautiful: “We just kind of very naïvely and innocently had a lot of time on our hands,” Teller says, “and we thought very long about what kind of girl or woman interested us and what we wanted to do. Sometimes we did one fashion story a year, and sometimes two. It was really slow, but it was great. We couldn’t go faster.” Fashion was quite glossy and supermodel-driven then, but Teller and Scott got hung up on Kate Moss, who was impossibly short and quirky by the standards of the time. “It was a bit scary for the Vogue people,” Teller says. “We were kind of free-spirited and hippieish and kind of dreamy.” They often shot with vintage clothes because the big design houses—“the Gucci Puccis,” Teller calls them—wouldn’t loan to them.
But they had worked it out, their idea of beauty: It was young and human, a direct sort of opposition to all that was glamazonian in the world. And it took: By the early nineties, The Face and i-D had moved outside the status of cult and were suddenly being mined for talent by the biggies. Soon, as Teller puts it, “those magazines became mainstream, and now everything is mainstream. The force was too strong not to listen to me. I was able to humanize the person wearing the clothes.”