“I’m so used to seeing Juergen’s body parts,” Jacobs says of the Rampling photos. “When he shot Sofia [Coppola] for the perfume ads, his toes are in, like, every shot. Juergen is Juergen’s biggest fan. Every time he sends me pictures, he calls and says, ‘Marc. Here are the pictures. They are fucking excellent.’ ”
Various Vogues began to hire Teller, and he loved the first-class travel, the luxurious accommodations, the large budgets. But it never felt quite right: “It’s too dictatorshipness,” Teller says. He found the mainstream editorial take on fashion to be way too camp, and in return, mainstream fashion found Teller way too dirty; they sought to scrub him up, temper the grunge. “They would put me with Linda Evangelista,” Teller says, “and Patrick Demarchelier with Kate Moss.”
He was far happier finding designers who shared his off-center ideas, like the urban minimalist Helmut Lang. “Juergen has a very strong individual voice,” Lang says, “which is a rather rare accomplishment these days. I love his ability to say out loud what other people are afraid to even think.” Teller became the documentarian of Lang’s designs: “It was natural to have him express the soul of my work,” Lang says. Teller’s Helmut Lang ads were as clean as the clothes themselves.
In 1997, Marc Jacobs began to woo Venetia Scott to style his collections (she was pregnant at the time with the couple’s daughter, Lola, who is now 11). Jacobs and his business partner, Robert Duffy, flew to London to persuade the reluctant Scott, but Jacobs and Teller wound up sharing a smoke out back. “I’d always loved Juergen’s work,” Jacobs says. “I saw in Juergen all the same things that I was responding to: the imperfection of what’s real. It was not perverse at all, it was just my generation’s sensitivity to what’s attractive and right.” There was no money for ads in those days (Jacobs had not yet been acquired by LVMH), but Jacobs turned to Teller and said, “I hear Kim Gordon’s been wearing one of my dresses onstage. Can you take her picture?”
Teller photographed the Sonic Youth front woman, and a collaboration was born.
Teller went on to shoot many of Jacobs’s friends, and the odd model, for his campaigns. In 2005, he photographed himself with Cindy Sherman, the pair made up to look like pale, terrifying prepubescent twins. He had Jacobs alter his clothes to fit a tiny, eerily adult Dakota Fanning. Most recently, he stuck Posh Spice in a shopping bag. “She is like a product,” he says. “And she was in on the joke.”
Teller flew to Germany and photographed himself naked and drinking and smoking on his father’s grave. “It was a very difficult picture for my mother,” he says.
But Teller’s most important Marc Jacobs ad, for his own career, anyway, began in 2004 and involves a collaboration with Charlotte Rampling.
It all started when a French actress of a certain age lost it upon seeing some photographs Teller had taken of her. “She said, ‘You make me ten years older than I am,’ and I said, ‘You think you’re ten years younger than you are.’ And then she sort of kicked me out of her apartment, and I was really sort of devastated. I just thought, This is fucking rubbish—this is really bad.”
Despondent, Teller called his friend Rampling, who offered to cook him dinner. They talked about how it feels to be photographed, and how it feels to age. “I just thought, Fuck this, I’m going to photograph myself,” he says. And then there the two of them were, in the Louis XV suite of the Hotel de Crillon, with Teller way too fat to fit into any of the Marc Jacobs samples save one terribly shiny pair of silver shorts.
“I thought, Fuck,” Teller says, “I don’t even fucking fit into these clothes. I’m really fucking stuck now.”
So he pulled on the shorts in the bathroom. “I came out and I had my socks on and I had these shorts on and no top, and I just said, ‘Ta-da!’ And she said, ‘Oh my God. What are we going to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know. But really, honestly’—and I could hardly bring it out of my mouth—I said, ‘I just want to kiss you and fondle your breasts.’ And she didn’t say a word. She just leaned back in her armchair and went into her handbag and got a cigarillo out and lit it and the air was thick and I was mortified. And then she sort of dragged on her cigarette and said, ‘Okay. Let’s start. I’ll tell you when to stop.’ ”
The result is an ad that is glamorous, decadent, arresting, and entirely unlike any other fashion advertisement you’re likely to see in even the fattest September book.
“For me it was important that an over-60 woman is in a high-class fashion ad, or whatever you call it, and a 40-year-old overweight guy, instead of these anorexic young kids.” It’s like some sort of avant-garde Dove campaign, interested in amping up the glamour of fashion by removing its artifice but retaining the decadence of an ornate suite in a five-star hotel, all tricked out in the gilty style of Louis XV. Teller was so happy with the ad that he and Rampling returned to the Crillon and continued the shoot, eventually publishing a small book. The photos verge on pornographic: In one, an (uncircumcised) Teller is pissing into an orchid, right beside a rotting bowl of fruit. It’s almost as if, by placing himself in the photographs looking naked, pudgy, and often sad, he has removed the sadism inherent in so much fashion photography: If a model is required to look vulnerable, well, then so will Teller.