Published on: May 24 2021
Juergen Teller: What Are We Talking About?
Text Ryan White
Few photographers could place a single image of a frog emerging from a man's mouth next to a miscellany of handbag campaigns and make these two things seem so naturally connected. But Juergen Teller – currently standing in his vast concrete studio in west London next to a miniature replica of "What Are We Talking About?" – has no trouble finding the threads that tie his disparate body of work together.
"For the last 30 years, I have been photographing handbags," he says, matter-of-factly. "A lot of fashion photographers don't necessarily enjoy photographing handbags because it's a thing they have to do to make money. I kind of wanted to bombard people with what's basically in the store downstairs and the consumer goods, where I make my money."
Handbags No.4, Steidl, 2019
These images of handbags reflect more than just commerce to Teller, as do the portraits of Chinese influencers ahead of them and the image of a woman in a Chanel suit holding two fish that meets you as you walk in, both taken from System. For his first solo exhibition in China, at the top of Beijing's vast SKP-S department store no less, Teller wants to comment on his own role within the fashion industry and the way it has shaped him as much as he's shaped it.
Wander further into the space, past images of forests, frogs and a trip to Iran, and you'll find perhaps his most subversive work to date; a magazine story entitled "Notes About My Work", which examined the backlash to his W magazine actors portfolio. "The response I got from the internet, did you see it?" he asks of the W story before reading out of one of the tweets about it. "Juergen Teller... the Hague awaits you for your war crimes".
Rather than respond to any of his critics who felt the images in W were far too ordinary – be that an anonymous tweeter or the Los Angeles Times – Teller decided instead to photograph the magazine itself, collate the different reactions it received, and publish it in Pop magazine. “I even photographed Mickey Mouse," he says, laughing, pointing at the different memes that people online jokingly attributed to him once the story came out. "People get so upset; why are my pictures so normal? These celebrities at the beginning of the pandemic, they photographed themselves in their rich, flashy houses, and they got hammered for that too."
There are examples of his more traditional work in the show, too; images that one might have found on @juergentellerpage, a once-popular, now-deleted fan account of his archive that filled his absence on Instagram for a period. In the furthest corner of the exhibition lies a small room with an old image of Kate Moss inside it. "I guess it's right at the end, and it's intimate," he says of this picture, and another of longtime collaborator Charlotte Rampling that sits next to it. "And then you basically have to go back and reassess the whole thing again."
By this, Teller means that, rather than just leave out of this corner and return to the store, the viewer must turn back around and confront his frogs, or the vast forests first. They may come no closer to understanding how he connected these dots, but this is Juergen Teller, so one shouldn't expect to.
"I think it's interesting," he adds. "What can photography do these days, you know, and what reactions can you get?" If ever there was an artist keen to provoke but also positioned close enough to culture’s gilded centre to make it felt, it's him.
Leg, Snails and Peaches No.6, POP magazine, London, 2018