Jürgen Teller. Enjoy your Life! at Martin-Gropius-Bau


Jürgen Teller. Enjoy Your Life!

Jürgen Teller is one of the world’s most sought-after contemporary photographers. His works, many of which take the form of extensive series, are published in books, magazines and exhibitions.

Born into a family of instrument makers, he had to abandon his apprenticeship as a bowmaker for health reasons. He chose to study photography at the Staatslehranstalt für Photographie in Munich instead and moved to London in 1986. There, he began to work for trendy music, zeitgeist and fashion magazines and came to fame in 1991, when he accompanied the band Nirvana on its Nevermind tour and published his sensitive pictures of the band’s shy frontman Kurt Cobain. Since then his pictures have straddled the interface of art and commercial photography. His stylistic device of choice is the portrait. Working in the areas of music, fashion and celebrities as well as everyday scenes and landscape, he draws on his intuitive feel for people, situations, milieus and clichés to create images of great immediacy and deceptive simplicity. His compositions often convey a sense of the incidental or even slapdash, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that they are very carefully composed and conceptualised. Implicit in many of his works is the deliberate breach of viewer expectations – Teller does not idealise, romanticise or prettify. Instead, his pictures aim for the very core of the subject and foreground the idea of imperfect beauty.

Deliberately distancing himself from the relentless glamour of fashion and people photography, Jürgen Teller forged his own distinctive path. In his shoots for well-known fashion designers, he placed supermodels, pop stars and other celebrities in unexpected and often disturbing contexts. His series Kanye, Juergen & Kim, Château d’Ambleville of 2015 is a case in point. Encouraging his sitters to show their individuality and capturing them in seemingly private, intimate moments, away from the glare of public attention, he detaches the images from established visual codes and demystifies the stars in front of his lens. Then again, his skilful compositions make ‘stars’ of inanimate objects and invest them with metaphoric meaning. The opulent book Eating at Hotel Il Pellicano. Juergen Teller, Antonio Guida, Will Self features photographs of extravagantly elegant food by the celebrated Michelin-starred chef Antonio Guida against the backdrop of the chic Tuscan Hotel.

Teller applies the same creative principles to his non-commercial work. The resulting images – now more than ever – are baffling, unpredictable, cliché-defying, intimate, seemingly transgressive and in-your-face, but never compromising, because they are informed by great empathy and sensitivity. ‘In the end, the only thing that really interests me is the interaction between two people. One of them is me, the photographer. And when these encounters touch me, then that is a good thing.’ His shootings with Charlotte Rampling have acquired legendary status. They are based on a shared sense of playfulness and absolute trust, which also inspired Charlotte Rampling, a Fox, and a Plate (Teller), the latest images of her shot in Teller’s new studio in London.

Some groups of works – for example Irene im Wald, 2012 or Bilder und Texte, 2011 (a combination of photographs and texts by Teller) – are very autobiographical in character. As subjective documentations, they bear witness to his engagement with his youth and his origins. They are direct, candid, occasionally humorous and always touching. His family and his mother Irene play an important role. They provide the solid foundation that gives him the freedom to operate, and at the interface of commercial and non-commercial photography, they are the links and constants that hold the two ‘worlds’ together. Teller’s curiosity and playfulness, and above all the insouciant ease with which he brings together objects and motifs that seem to have nothing in common, is apparent in much of his work, for instance in pictures of models at his home or of Aunt Gisela and Catherine Deneuve smoking a cigarette together on a Paris doorstep.

Works like Siegerflieger – a kind of photographic diary of the German national football team winning the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 – and My Man Crush, Pep Guardiola – shot from the fan perspective during a trip to China in 2015 – testify to Teller’s feeling for the moment and his skill in undermining the posited line between private and public. Another important part of his oeuvre are carefully staged yet unsparingly candid images of himself, among them the series The Clinic of 2015. He reveals much of himself, offers glimpses of his most private moments, captures his children, wife and mother and presents himself naked, standing on his father’s grave or astride a donkey’s back.

Jürgen Teller demands a lot from his sitters. He expects them to embrace a raw and unvarnished authenticity. By the same token, his steady focus on the motif, candid and curious, open and unblinkered, calls for tolerance and curiosity on the part of the viewer. And he gives as good as he gets. He uses the set, the props, his camera and, above all, the sitters as a film director might and frequently acts as the protagonist of his own images, delegating the operation of the shutter release to someone else. ‘In the wider sense, everything is a kind of self-portrait. It’s just the way you see things and how certain things rouse your curiosity and get you all excited.’ In so doing, he integrates a change of perspective in form of the viewer’s gaze into his visual conceptualisation. He invites us to share in his playful game and makes us his allies.

The series Plates/Teller, begun in 2016, seems to bring together and concentrate all of Teller’s themes and compositions. The protagonists’ games with a plate – the German word for plate is Teller, and so the plate acts as a synonym and stand-in for the photographer – are captured in compositions that are as tender as they are exuberant, direct and honest, full of humour and strangely touching. Many of his complex narratives only unfold upon a closer look, even if they are presented on the proverbial platter. As ‘storyteller’, Teller reflects on photography as a mirror of society and examines its media impact.

The huge appeal of his photographs and of his magnificent combinations of motifs lies in the directness with which they speak to the viewer. Without frills, unsparing, candid, humorous, tongue in cheek and occasionally transgressive, Teller’s photographs have an inescapable intensity and strike us with bold immediacy.

The exhibition was previously shown at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn and the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague.

Jürgen Teller – Enjoy Your Life!
Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
April 20, 2017 – July 03, 2017