Juergen Teller - A Conversation
Interview Paul Kominek
Photography Juergen Teller
Fashion photographer Juergen Teller has long worked outside the bounds of the traditional commercial shoot. He sets his own example, working with his clients to embrace the unexpected. In return, he never fails to deliver a total package marked by inimitable authenticity. The line between fine art and commercial work in Teller’s oeuvre is fluid; his integration of biographical elements into nearly all his photographs transgresses the genres. Add to that the distinctive look of his images, which, to the casual viewer, could easily be mistaken for snapshots, but which he has perfected over the years. In a refreshingly open interview he traces the various stages of his career and describes how this once aspiring bow maker became one of the most respected and well-traveled photographers in the world.
Hi Juergen, you’re in Suffolk right now, right? Do you have a house in the countryside there?
Yes, we’re renting a house here, it’s a really tiny one – there’s lots of agriculture around us. Great for weekends as it’s relatively close to London, about two hours away.
How did you find out about the area?
Through friends. My wife had a house about half an hour away with the artist Sarah Lucas. Together they bought the house where composer Benjamin Britten used to live. They had it for years and then she sold her share to Sarah. A few of our friends have houses there. The house is close to the seaside in a small, unfrequented area, which is quite beautiful. There’s a small pond and the house is tiny tiny, you just need to close it up as there’s never much to clean.
And you mentioned you go jogging there?
Yeah, well, it depends. If I’m in a good mood I’ll go jogging, but I also really like to walk; it’s about two to three miles to the next shop, and you can buy your milk or fruit there, whatever you need. It’s good for getting you out of the house a bit.
But you’re not the kind of jogger who discovers every city he arrives in by jogging through it? I’m only asking because I’m always amazed by people who travel a lot and still manage to be so disciplined with their workouts in transit.
Yes, when I’m working it’s easier to exercise. When I’m somewhere in a hotel I usually go to the gym or something. But now when I travel with the kids . . . I have two children, which entails so many responsibilities that it becomes difficult. And in the evening you have to strike a balance since it depends on how much you’ve had to drink the night before; you either get out or you don’t the next morning. It depends on where you are, too – we have a house in Greece and I love being active there; I swim a lot. But I also like hiking in the mountains.
Is that mainly to be active physically or just to see and explore ?
Yeah, well, jogging is nice because you feel good afterwards. Hiking works pretty much the same way, just that sometimes someone will want to go hiking with me, but I prefer to go alone and just march right up the mountain. I always see so many colors and all the little things then. When you hike up somewhere you always have to pay attention to what rock you’re stepping on and that takes you into a sort of macro-mode and you look at your path more precisely. And then you can start to daydream and you have different thoughts when you’re walking alone.
You mentioned Greece. Where in Greece do you like to go?
It is a small island – I’d prefer not to say where exactly because it’s been featured quite a lot recently.
No problem, we’ll just call it “The Island.”
My wife has been going there for seven-teen years. She works with an Art Collector, and together they curate an exhibition there every year. They’ve been doing this for seventeen years. For a long weekend some hundred or 120 guests are invited and the whole thing is totally extravagant, I think it’s just super; many curators, artists, writers, collectors, people from the press, from the Tate, their curators, etc., are all invited. I’ve known my wife now for eleven years and ever since we met I’ve been going with her to the island with our kids and I really like it there. There are no cars, no advertisements, no billboards. You just walk there. There are donkeys that carry your luggage or your shopping bags – it’s incredibly comfortable.
But what I still want to mention is a little trip I always enjoy there. You have to take a boat, or really a water taxi, about twenty minutes from the island to the mainland. Then you drive about ten more minutes – a Greek friend of mine has a car – and finally you arrive at an abandoned hotel that went bankrupt. There are still six tennis courts and we always play tennis. It makes you feel a bit like an explorer, reminds me of Huckleberry Finn. It’s a real vast complex of hotels with different buildings and apartments, and the owner is apparently in jail for tax evasion and bankruptcy and it is just a wild site.
Well, that is definitely one of the best hotel tips we’ve ever had. But you also like hotels that are still in business, right?
Oh yeah, I really like being in hotels, sure. But unfortunately, just like the rest of the world, they are becoming more and more the same. One of the best hotels I know is The Grand Bretagne in Athens. It’s a majestic old building; even though it was renovated at some point it still has this old quality. There are two huge swimming pools and a rooftop bar with one of the craziest views of the city, the Acropolis, the mountains, and there you can order your martini or whatever it is you’re drinking and you can still smoke everywhere.
A lot of these old grand hotels often lose all their charm through renovation, it’s a pity. The Ritz in Paris is being renovated right now; I’m curious how that will turn out, also the Crillon, which I like a lot. You’ve spent quite some time there.
Yes, I’ve shot there a lot. I photographed an Yves Saint Laurent campaign there, lots of portraits of people and also the book Louis XV with Charlotte Rampling. For a period of about half a year I took pictures of Charlotte and myself there. They gave me a good rate, which was still pretty expensive, but it was a lot of fun. What I always found interesting about the rooms was that even there none of it is actually original; it’s mostly antique furniture replicas. It reminds me of Bavaria, where I’m from, because there’s also something kitsch about it. In Bavaria in the basement of my home growing up we had this fairy tale room, which is quite kitsch. And then I step into this luxury suite in the Crillon and think to myself, “This is the same thing, in green. It looks like our party cel-lar.” It made me feel right at home.
Can you remember when you first got excited about travel?
Well, I think I have to start with a little more background information; growing up I was planning on becoming a bow maker, I’m from a small village where half of my relatives, or half of the people who live there, make musical instruments. But I had to stop my bow making apprenticeship after a year due to a dust allergy. My doctor then sent me on vacation for some fresh air. I went with my cousin, who’s two years older, to Tuscany, and that was the first time I really felt a desire for travel. I had just turned sixteen, the time when you start to develop that craving to see the world.
Was this your first trip abroad?
No, I think I was fifteen when I hitchhiked to Sicily with my girlfriend and that was pretty arduous. You stand around forever until something happens. And it takes a long time to get from Erlangen to Sicily. In any event, it was on this trip to Tuscany that I first took up photography because my cousin had a camera, but anyway, fast forward a few years, I was studying photography and wanted to get out of the mandatory national military service and got a provisional identity card in what was then West Berlin, which meant that I could cross over the border and didn’t have to join the military. And then at twenty-two I simply packed my car and traveled to England because I wanted to learn English. I knew that I wanted to photograph and travel, so I had to learn the language first. And without knowing anyone I just got up and left. I slept in my car for a while at first, which was not fun. At some point, much, much later, I started photographing album covers and began earning money with it.
And now travel plays a large role in your work, as is evident in your book “Ed in Japan.” Can you tell me something about that trip?
When my son was eleven months old we went to Japan over Christmas and New Year’s. We were there for three weeks, of which one was in Tokyo and the other two spent traveling through the country. It was freezing cold at points and snowing, which made it somewhat complicated with my son and the trolley and all his diapers, the baby food, and everything else you have when it’s so cold – gloves and socks . . . our whole suitcase was full, but it was great there. But mostly because they have super service in Japan, that’s one thing that [No-buyoshi] Araki’s agent explained to us. Araki had invited me to a sort of Bavarian dinner in his geisha bar and we had an amazing time. And so his agent helped us figure out where to go in Japan, what Ryokans to visit. And then when you travel from Kyoto to Kanazawa further north for example there is a service where you can have your luggage ported ahead of you so that when you arrive at your next hotel it’s there waiting for you. Everything is incredibly organized and these bullet trains...everything works just wonderfully.
Yes, travel in Japan is really something. I’m the biggest fan.
Yes, it’s really a super experience in these amazing Japanese hotels. We traveled around a lot and had the full package: those Japanese baths where the snow falls around you, while you sit in the hot springs and get a massage, and incredible food, it was really fantastic.
On another note, I understand that you were invited to Venezuela to take photographs for the Goethe Institute. How did that come about?
No, actually I wasn’t in Venezuela for that, I was asked to take photos of Miss Venezuela at a Miss World pageant in London. But I had in fact been to Venezuela many years prior; this was my first long trip.
Can you tell me a bit about that?
I was twenty-four or twenty-five and had an Italian girlfriend named Paola, who could speak a little Spanish. At one point she said, “Let’s go to the jungle in Venezuela.” And I could only think, “Fuck, okay, I guess I’ll go along.” And without planning anything we went to Caracas, arrived, and it was totally hardcore from the get-go. Somehow we couldn’t find a single hotel, we drove around in a taxi the whole day and it was like we were cursed. There was some kind of convention going on or something. And then we said, “Well, let’s at least spend a bit more money for a slightly more normal hotel, nothing big or special.” But still, no chance. It was getting dark and the taxi driver brought us to what looked like a brothel where you could rent rooms by the hour; that was the only thing we could get. It didn’t even have windows and the bed sheets were full of hair. It was horrible, disgusting.
I can imagine.
We had one contact there though, this guy was supposed to help us get to the jungle. And so we took a plane from Caracas further inland and then continued on in a bus for five more hours. Everything kept getting wilder and sparser, fewer and fewer people. And then at one point there was a guy waiting with a kayak chiseled out of a huge tree and he was like, “Now we’re going into the jungle.” And I just thought, “Fucking Christ.” I mean, I was still young and green and didn’t understand anything, my girlfriend understood only a little, and on top of it he was an Indian with war paint and I just thought, “Jesus Christ.”
And then we went into the jungle with him. It got quieter and quieter and was totally flabbergasted, and then the sun slowly set and I started to think, “Hey, where are we actually going to sleep? How does this work here?” And then we docked somewhere and our guy flattened every-thing with his machete so that we could even enter, and then we were suddenly in the jungle. We boiled a few eggs, ate a little and hung up three hammocks, and then it became dark so quickly it was eerie. I’ve never experienced such blackness. Because the jungle is so deeply green at night you can’t see a thing. And then my girlfriend translated what the Indian was saying. “So there are snakes that slither along the ground and snakes that come from the trees,” and I just got even paler. And then at night of course I had to go to the bathroom and I thought, “I can’t get up out of the hammock.” I was shitting myself, literally, in both ways. The noise at night in the rainforest was so intense, crackling and noise everywhere. I didn’t get a wink of sleep all night, too scared. I climbed out of the hammock and emptied my bladder only when morning rose.
We were there for five days and by the second day it was getting easier. But it was really an amazing experience. On one day we saw jumping freshwater dolphins that swam next to us. Unfortunately at some point the Indian suggested, “Let’s go swimming” and I, idiot that I was, went along. And you obviously really, really shouldn’t do that. There’s all sorts of tiny critters that will crawl into your penis and then enter your body, this brown sauce of a river.
But thank god nothing happened then and it was our last day. Shortly afterwards we flew back to Caracas and then suddenly
I started to itch everywhere, all over my skin it itched like crazy, and I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. My face was like Elephant Man, totally wrinkled. My girlfriend nearly had a heart attack it was so extreme. Stupidly I didn’t have a camera on me; there weren’t cell phones back then or anything. But within five hours every-thing went away again. It was so crazy how much skin can change – I had never seen anything like that.
Some sort of allergic reaction probably.
Yes, probably, from that damn brown river, I’m sure. Venezuela was also the first time people offered me cocaine, I was a gringo back then, but it was definitely the best cocaine I’ve had my entire life. [laughs]
And you didn’t have a camera with you at all?
I did have a Polaroid camera, which was a dumb choice because it’s super humid in the jungle; so all the colors blurred and all the chemicals seeped out, it was totally ridiculous.
That is an amazing story. I wanted to change the topic now though and talk a bit about soccer. When is the last time you attended a game at a stadium?
I really can’t say exactly, but next week I’m actually going to a soccer stadium. I’m visiting my mother and Nuremberg is playing Augsburg, I’m doing this mainly for my son. I personally prefer watching soccer on television. You have a better view and you can see all the replays and you have all the commentary as well. Because the people there drive me up the wall and I have problems with the masses of people.
I can understand that. In a stadium I also think, “Where’s the replay?” I’m a big Eintracht Frankfurt fan actually.
Oh boy, they just lost six-to-one.
Yeah, that was pretty shitty. I saw it in the stadium with a friend.
Was that in Berlin?
Yes, in that huge Olympic Stadium. To hear 70,000 people laugh at your team – it was hard.
This one time I was with a very good Italian friend of mine in Naples. And he said he’d get tickets for the Champions League game with Bayern München against Napoli, this was two years ago. In the round leading up we beat Napoli in Munich, so we could have even lost and would have still made it to the next round or something. We were staying at the Hotel Exelsior in Naples, which is a beautiful hotel by the way, near the harbor. And so my assistant Georg and I flew over and took a few days’ vacation to see the game. It was in October, still super warm, over twenty degrees and I could just wear a pair of athletic shorts. And friends of Emanuelle’s picked us up with Vespas and one of them, who was watching out for us, had a gun. Because in Italy it’s all not that easy when it comes to soccer. That same day someone had been stabbed in the arse at the train station; it’s not all fun and games. And he was just like, “I’ve already arranged for everything.” He was an ex-cop and had his gun tucked in at his back, and then the three Vespas and of course no one had a helmet, and they drive around with these tuned-up bikes because it would take forever to get to the stadium with a taxi. And it was a total adrenaline rush, the way they drive.
Oh, so you rode along on the Vespa.
Yeah, there were three of them, Emanuelle on one behind, Georg on the other one, and me in back. And I kept thinking, “Here comes an accident,” the way they drive there and these masses of Vespas. And all at once they stop in front of this sports store and I thought, “What’s going on here?” And Emanuelle says to me, “Everyone’s looking at you! We’re buying you a pair of proper pants now because you look like a dumb German here.”
And then the Italians went in and they bought me a pair of pants and I put them on and we continued on to the stadium. And when we arrive there of course we’re in the section for the home team fans, not in the Bayern München section. And Georg says, “Just don’t speak German.” And I’m like, “Of course, of course, I’ll speak English.” “And under no circumstances should you celebrate when the other team scores a goal.” And Georg isn’t as big a Bayern or even soccer fan in general as I am, and I just said, “Are you crazy? Yes, of course, of course, I know where I am, I have this guy with a gun here next to me.” Well, finally the kickoff happens, the game begins, and after twenty-two seconds Toni Kroos scores a goal, and it happened so fast that I just yelled “Oh my god, YESSS!” And then suddenly five hundred Italians turn around, look at me, and I’m just like, oh fuck. But thank god they tied two-to-two, because if we had won I wouldn’t have come out of there alive. But then at the end they escorted us out with an arm on my shoulder and Georg’s, and there was one in front of us and one behind, and they guided us through so that nothing would happen. It’s all not that easy down there.
I can imagine.
But it was an incredible experience. And in the end Napoli was second and Manchester City was eliminated, just my luck. But what this also shows is that travel is always an adventure for me. I always want to do something and experience something. And when you’re open for it then something interesting will happen.
For more information on Juergen Teller's photography and projects click here.
The conversation is included in TTA6. Click here for more information about the issue.