Juergen’s photographs are autobiographical,” says David Maupin, his New York gallerist, “but they are biographical too. They tell you about him, but also about his subjects, also about Germany.” Teller’s German childhood was far from idyllic. He grew up by a forest near Nuremberg, scene of Fascist rallies and Triumph of the Will. But more to the point, his father was a nasty, abusive drunk. Young Juergen watched a lot of television, which he thinks was his biggest inspiration, visually. “That’s where I became physically aware of watching and looking,” he says. “Like, on this German crime show there was Nastassja Kinski and she kind of got raped by one of her students, and she was really young and extremely beautiful. That made a huge influence on me.” Teller’s family expected that he would go into the family business—stringing musical instruments—but he couldn’t bear the idea and developed an allergy to the materials, which he now claims was psychosomatic. During Teller’s second year in London, his father committed suicide.
A few years ago, right around the time of the distressed-French-actress incident, Teller decided to confront his past. He flew to Nuremberg and photographed himself, naked and squatting in the forest, naked and drinking and smoking on his father’s grave. “It was a very difficult picture for my mother,” Teller says, “but I was kind of saying, ‘Hey, it’s okay what you did and I’m still around and I have also my problems in terms of smoking and alcohol, but I’m good.’ ”
Teller split from Scott five years ago and has since married the London gallerist Sadie Coles (to understand the smallness of the fashion world, know that she represents other Jacobs stalwarts Elizabeth Peyton, TJ Wilcox, and John Currin). The couple’s long-lashed, blue-eyed son, Ed, is now nearly 4, and he shouts, that Tuesday afternoon, to his father, “I love you, Dad. I’m going to the park, but I love you.”
Right now, Teller is more into fashion than ever. “It just comes very easy to me these days,” he says. “Autobiographical work—photographing myself—made it all much more easy.” But he’s done shooting himself for the moment, and wants to get back to gorgeous girls and gorgeous stuff. He’s just photographed Carla Bruni, which pleased him most because it will impress his mom.
Teller’s influence is everywhere. There’s a similar rawness in the work of Terry Richardson—“He certainly took some of my ideas,” Teller says, diplomatically—but it is not as subtle, as nuanced, as the work of Teller. And it’s hard to imagine what American Apparel ads would look like had Teller not come first. “I really like that,” Teller says, “because it looks effortless and it looks good and just, frankly, it’s girls you want to fuck.”
Fashion for Teller remains rich. He’s come a long way from being denied by the Gucci-Puccis, and he loves it. “Fashion designers in a funny sort of way are underestimated within their creativity,” he says. “It’s really quite amazing what they do. They are also very creative.” He laughs a bit. “The whole thing is just fascinating to me: What people will do to themselves—and to what extent people do whatever you tell them—is just insane.”