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Juergen Teller’s photographs go far beyond provocation

Photographer Juergen Teller’s latest book, “Donkey Man and Other Stories,” is a 608-page collection of photos taken over three decades. The astounding story behind the title and cover image – a self-portrait of the German photographer lying naked on the back of a donkey – is told over 50 pages.

A short passage titled “The Donkey Ride” details a heartbreaking incident that took place in Turkey in the mid-1980s. As Teller writes, he and a former girlfriend endured a long and frightening bus ride that took them in a desert town where her partner started to feel so bad that she ended up in the hospital. While taking a break from his bedside, Teller ventured out for a walk. He ended up agreeing to a donkey ride from a man who, unbeknownst to Teller, sexually assaulted him on the animal’s back.

He was able to fend off his attacker, but the details of the story are grim and the experience touched him so deeply that he was unable to talk about it for years. “I haven’t told anyone about it,” he said in an interview at his London studio. “I was so weird about it, obviously… I couldn’t say anything to my girlfriend at the time. I was totally in this world of my own and didn’t connect much with the outside world, so it was. is half why We parted. ”

So, after such a horrific experience, what prompted Teller to photograph himself, decades later, lying naked and vulnerable on a donkey?

The response begins in Frankfurt in 2013, when he was struck by a flashback to the incident while working on a performance piece with German artist Anne Imhof. Teller’s role was to lead a donkey from outside the Portikus Gallery into the white exhibition space and tie the animal up, a task that not only scared him (he feared he would get kicked), but also resurfaced memories of what happened in Turkey.

“Really, deeply personal”

A few years later, Teller got his own donkey and shot the cover image in his studio, a large purpose-built space in West London. “I said, ‘I need a donkey. I want to have a donkey here. And I want to be naked on the donkey. And I somehow want to write this story. ‘”, he explained.

“You have good experiences, bad experiences, fun experiences. Life is full of complexity and I wanted to show it.”

Victoria Beckham, “Legs, Bag and Shoes”, Marc Jacobs Spring / Summer 2008 campaign, Los Angeles, 2007. Credit: Jürgen Teller

When choosing the cover for the book, Teller noted that he could have used one of his more familiar images. He took iconic photos of Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham and Björk, to name a few – stars who “are said to have sold more copies.” But it had to be this photograph, he said, because the project is “really, deeply personal”.

The book also contains pictures and words from Teller’s closest associates, including actress Charlotte Rampling, whom Teller has photographed on several occasions. In one shot, taken in the courtyard of his studio, the actor is seated, powerful and poised, holding a magnificent fox. A few pages later, she is seen again – this time on all fours as she eats or drinks from the same white plate as the fox. The absurdity of the stage is a common trope for Teller, whose sense of humor is often twisted.

"Charlotte Rampling, a fox and a plate," No. 15, Document magazine, London,

“Charlotte Rampling, a Fox, and a Plate,” No. 15, Document magazine, London, Credit: Jürgen Teller

"Charlotte Rampling, a fox and a plate," No. 9, Document magazine, London, 2016

“Charlotte Rampling, a Fox, and a Plate”, n ° 9, Document magazine, London, 2016 Credit: Jürgen Teller

Teller’s photos can be a bit difficult for some – there’s a lot of nudity, phallic shapes, and snaps of slugs and frogs scattered throughout the pages of the book. His images often force viewers to question what is sexy, humorous, or sad.

Nor is he one for the proverbial pedestals. A photo of Kim Kardashian West shows her crawling through the dirt in thigh-high stockings, boots, underwear and a fur coat with her butt sticking up in the air. Photos of a completely naked Kristen McMenamy, meanwhile, reveal the model’s most intimate body parts.

But Teller rejects the idea he demands of his subjects; these scenes happen quite naturally, he said, adding that he never asks anyone to do anything he considers inappropriate. “I don’t do anything out of spite or when they don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s always clear what I’m looking for, I guess.”

So what was he looking for with the Kim Kardashian photo? “I was completely interested in her butt and what it all about,” he said simply.

“Kanye, Juergen and Kim”, n ° 70, System magazine, Château d’Ambleville, Val d’Oise, 2015. Credit: Jürgen Teller

But to insist too much on the provocative nature of his work would be reductive. And anyway, as he puts it in the typical German way: “The English are weird about (nudity).”

Teller’s work is filled with quiet moments, like the many images of his mother and her images of nature. A series of poignant photos he took of sick children in a hospice in London and the photos of his dying uncle are raw and moving, telling a whole different story.

As Edward Enninful, editor of British Vogue, wrote in his tribute to Teller in the book, the photographer shows people “like their real selves” and is “fearless in his honesty”.
"Mom with plate in the forest," Arena Homme Plus, Bubenreuth, Bavaria, 2016

“Mum with plate in the forest”, Arena Homme Plus, Bubenreuth, Bavaria, 2016 Credit: Jürgen Teller

Criticism and congratulations

So it’s remarkable that the fashion industry, a sector notoriously controlling and obsessed with presenting perfection, has embraced his work. Equally baffling is that Teller prefers the fashion industry to the art world in many ways, finding the former “more authentic” – but the fashion world he sees, through his own work, l ‘is. He has photographed for many high fashion brands: his work for Marc Jacobs, particularly the 2008 image of Victoria Beckam’s bare legs sticking out of a shopping bag, and his Joan Didion snap for Celine are just a few -one of his most famous campaigns.

Edward Enninful No. 3, Arena Homme Plus, London, 2017

Edward Enninful No. 3, Arena Homme Plus, London, 2017 Credit: Jürgen Teller

Teller is a photographer who emerged in the 1990s, when magazines were still the ultimate way to access fashion and culture. He cut his teeth in cult titles such as The Face and iD, and he shot many stories for Vogue. His new book, he said, does justice to his love of magazines.

Despite all the successes and accolades, his work is not always understood. A photo report for W magazine went viral last year after social media critics called the images lazy and disrespectful. The shoot, featuring a host of established and emerging Hollywood talent including James Corden, Riz Ahmed, Gal Gadot and Taylour Paige, took place outdoors, mostly against the backdrop of cars parked on a mundane street in Los Angeles. A Tweeter by Ahmed, in which he said: “This @wmag shoot was the fastest of my life. 20 seconds, two clicks. Juergen Teller is the OG,” seemed to elicit most of the criticism – the photos that were meant to be being frank was considered neglectful by many.
Riz Ahmed # 1, W magazine, Los Angeles, 2021.

Riz Ahmed # 1, W magazine, Los Angeles, 2021. Credit: Jürgen Teller

The outrage caught Teller completely off guard, and it hurt. “Yeah, I care, of course I still care – I care a lot,” he said, reflecting on the backlash. “(The fact that they) didn’t understand it really bothered me.”

He eventually turned the experience into another project, posting the tweets and memes in the Spring / Summer 2021 issue of Pop magazine under the headline “Notes About My Work”.

Some images also appear in a new exhibition at the Suzanne Tarasieve gallery in Paris. Called “Auguri”, in Italian for “congratulations”, the exhibition marks a new chapter for the 57-year-old, who has just remarried his creative partner and muse Dovile Drizyte. One of the photo sets on display, “We are building our future together,” shows the couple in high-visibility jackets at various construction sites in Venice and Naples, where they celebrated their weddings this summer. One photo shows the smiling couple in matching yellow helmets as they pose with a playfully positioned waste pipe.
"We are building our future together" No. 96, Naples, 2021

“We are building our future together” N ° 96, Naples, 2021 Credit: Jürgen Teller

A turnaround

Our interview spans a considerable amount of time, but Teller is full of stories. Many more are captured in the book, such as the story of his photo of OJ Simpson, taken while filming the notorious former NFL star in Miami. Simpson, who Teller was anxious to walk away from, apparently asked him blank, “Juergen, who do you think did it?” (referring to the Nicole Brown murder) to which Teller replied: “OJ, I have no idea. I was not there.” Apparently, screaming with laughter, Simpson raised his hands to the sky and said, “Only God knows.”

JO Simpson, "Only god knows," Miami, 2000.

JO Simpson, “Only God Knows”, Miami, 2000. Credit: Jürgen Teller

A section of the book is also devoted to a trip Teller and Drizyte took to Iran just before the pandemic. Once again, the story takes an unexpected turn when the pair miss their return flight and find themselves at Tehran airport on the day Iran fired several missiles at Iraqi bases housing US troops in retaliation. to a US drone strike that killed senior Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani the week before.

Incredibly, the couple were then offered, but turned down, two seats on the ill-fated Ukrainian Airlines flight that was shot down by Iranian forces shortly after takeoff, killing all 176 people on board.

Organizing a book of this magnitude could have been overwhelming, but Teller seems unfazed. In fact, he wanted to point out that this is only volume 1, suggesting that there is more to come.

Its ambitions do not end there. It is planning a huge museum-scale solo exhibition at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris, a 10,000 square meter (108,000 square foot) space erected to house exhibitions while the historic Grand Palais is under construction. It’s unclear exactly how he’ll use the space, but there’s no doubt he’ll have a hard time filling it.

“Juergen Teller: Donkey Man and Other Stories,” published by Rizzoli, is out now.

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Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes

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