Juergen Teller on his controversial 032c shoot

Reading Time: 10 minutes

BJP: You’ve worked with [the model] Kristen McMenamy many times over the years, do you think that makes a difference to how you were able to shoot her?

JT: Of course there’s a lot of history there – a lot of experience and the security that you know someone so well. It was clear that there was trust there, and I showed her the photographs afterwards. It was good we’ve worked on personal projects together and we’ve also done commercial jobs where both parties earned money. She didn’t do modelling for like ten years, she stopped to have kids. So we hadn’t worked together for a long time, then four or five yeas ago I asked her to do a Marc Jacobs campaign. She had this fabulous long grey hair I was super intrigued with, and I really enjoyed the work we did together. Then maybe two years ago we did something for magazine, and she was very intrigued about the nudes I was doing, especially my naked self-portraits, and she was very open to doing something like that.

This Carlo Mollino shoot came to me from three different sources right at the same time, it was very, very bizarre. A good friend of mine in Italy kept saying I should go to Turin and see Mollino’s place, he knows the museum’s director so he said there would be no problem [with shooting], he would let me do whatever I wanted there. Totally simultaneously, 032c asked me about Mollino, and Zoe Bedeaux, the stylist, suggested it. Literally bang, bang, bang – I thought it was such a coincidence it was meant to be. The magazine said I could do a fashion story, or photograph the architecture and details, or we could talk about something else, some nudes.

I didn’t really want to do a fashion story in there, it didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t go into Mollino’s place and do pretty pictures of girls like he did [in his erotic Polaroids]– I had to arrive prepared to do something new. I felt it wouldn’t be good enough to have just any girl naked there – I had to have this power against him, something that belonged to me. Very quickly, I knew it had to be Kristen. The pictures I did of her with the Versace heart have been quite talked about, museums have bought them, so I thought she has been like that for me.

BJP: How long were you there for?

JT: Two nights and some days. We flew there and arrived at say 5pm, and the plan was to relax and have dinner and then start the next day. Then we thought, why don’t we just go there, maybe we can eat there and just start. So we got there and started shooting and it lasted until 2am in the morning. It was pretty immediate. It’s a small place, very contained and very particular, and we worked until late them went to bed and let the whole experience sink in. It was nice to sleep well, have lunch and then start again at 3pm, and do the same thing until late at night.

BJP: Did you already have an idea of what you wanted to do or was it more spontaneous?

JT: Zoe showed me some of the clothes she had brought along, so we pretty much knew what we were doing but after that we were just playing around and trying things out. It went very, very quick and organic and playful, everyone had a very good time. It was a pleasure.

BJP: Did you feel more free because it wasn’t a fashion shoot per se?

JT: Yes, because [on a fashion shoot] you have to photograph clothes and handbags and all the scenarios; there I could just do whatever I wanted. I really believe some places have an energy and it had a fantastic energy, really special. When you’re standing on the balcony its not like you’re standing on any fucking balcony, it’s really something. It’s beautiful, the place is beautiful – there are original Man Ray prints and these incredibly rare chairs. It’s totally insane. And then in the middle of the night, it started to snow, and that was kind of amazing.

BJP: So were you talking to Kristen and saying let’s try this or that?

JT: No, I think we’re both very good at understanding each other. There doesn’t need to be a story like ‘Oh now you need to be like a little cat’. We moved from one corner to another and it was very organic, both of us reacting to little details. I might say ‘No I don’t think that’s so good, let’s be more calm and so on’ but really we were just shifting around.

BJP: Were you surprised that the shoot became so controversial? Even 032c’s distributors were unhappy about it.

JT: Yes, well they described it as pornographic. I don’t mind, I don’t really care. I wasn’t surprised, obviously I thought there would be reactions, but that’s a good thing and I never thought they were pornographic. They’re not.

BJP: Do you think some of the reaction was because Kristen is an older model – we’re used to seeing younger models naked in fashion and art but not so much older women?

JT: Possibly but one has to ask these other people what they think. I don’t understand why [they had a problem]. “I think she looks amazing, she’s completely in control and very powerful. She knows exactly what she’s doing; we enjoyed each other’s company, as well as these pictures. She has a certain secureness of being a woman, of saying, ‘I’m like this; I’m content with myself; I’m not going to have plastic surgery.’ You feel that very strongly, that this person is content in her looks; I think it’s wonderful to show. It’s her, that’s the whole thing and she has a raw sexuality. I would never ask a person to do something where I wouldn’t feel it’s right. She was very, very excited when she saw the pictures. She said it was really the core of her, and was very proud and happy to have been involved.

BJP: You’ve worked with other models who are older and shown them in a sexual way, is that something you’re interested in exploring?

JT: Not necessarily, only when it makes sense. I’m not looking out for older women who would be great to photograph, it’s just because I’ve known Vivienne [Westwood] for such a long time I’ve photographed her, and now I’m doing all the campaigns for her, and I’ve known Charlotte Rampling for a long time too. I’m not looking on the internet for who would be good to work with. And it’s certainly not the only thing I do. I just did a book of the Suffolk landscape because we’ve got a house there now, I photograph my children, and I just worked on a cookbook with an Italian hotel called Il Pelicano. It’s not my only corner, I’m just interested in life.

BJP: Do you think it’s interesting though to have pictures of older women in fashion magazines?

JT: Anything could be interesting, you know, I would be bored out of my mind if I would just photographed 15-year-old girls all the time. I just used Helena Bonham Carter for a Marc Jacobs ad, but for Marc by Marc, the younger line, I used the actress Elle Fanning [who is 13]. I know through my daughter, who’s 14, that girls that age have an interest in clothes. They go to Topshop and everything, so it does make sense. But at the same time, I would be stupid to say a 55-year-old wouldn’t be interested in fashion and clothes. So why not show them in a beautiful, fashionable, questionable, interesting way?

BJP: Is it something you’re more able to do, because you’re well established and have so much clout?

JT: Well, I was young once too and I didn’t do that [work with only young, mainstream models]. You always have problems and things to fight against – what you believe in, you have to push for. But yes, obviously now it is easier for me because I have all this body of work and people trust me and very much like the result. It would be awful if they didn’t like them.

BJP: Is it quite good for you and the magazine if you do something a little bit controversial though, because you get publicity?

JT: I never think about it in these terms, I just want to do good work. I intellectually and intuitively felt it was what I should do. But it was very good for the magazine, and it is good for me too because it gets noticed – everybody looks and tries to get hold of this magazine. It was brave of the magazine to publish it, there wouldn’t have been many that would have done so. I feel really grateful that they were very brave. But that didn’t matter to me either. Whether they wanted to publish it or not, it had to be done. If I published it in a book or showed it in a gallery, the images would have found a way of coming to life.

BJP: 032c published lots of pages, far more than the average story – was that clear form the start?

JT: Yes, I won’t schlep over there to Turin unless it was clear there were numerous pages. But even then, they could have stopped after 26 pages but they really left it as how long the story should be.

BJP: Was it difficult to do the edit?

JT: It was very difficult because Kristen is an excellent model. She gave me a lot. I shot a lot of film and spent a lot of time printing and editing, and reduced it and reduced it. The layout took a long time. I presented 032c with it and then they came back with certain ideas, some of which I didn’t like and some were very helpful. Sometimes you work so hard, shooting, editing and laying out, you get too close to it. It’s good when you can put a shoot aside for two months and then look at it again, but in a magazine context you don’t have that much time. So it was good that people from the outside looked at it, the magazine and my wife [gallerist Sadie Coles].

BJP: Did you always know that you would have a front cover too?

JT: Yes, but it doesn’t really interest me. I don’t shoot for a cover shot, it’s much more important that you’re in the scenario with the model and working on what you’re doing, not thinking what would be good in two months’ time on the cover. But certain things that would never be a cover, so it had to be one of the pictures where you don’t see so much nudity.

BJP: Was the magazine worried when you presented them with the images?

JT: Well they know me, and they know Kristen, so they kind of knew what they were getting into. It didn’t come out of the blue. But they were amazed, like ‘Oh my god we’re going to get into so much trouble publishing these, but we really like them, we’re going to do it’.

BJP: Did you have to fight to keep some of the more explicit photographs in? For example, the picture of her behind.

JT: That picture had to be in, with everybody. That wasn’t the fight. But they were like ‘Let’s use that one instead of that one’ [replacing a picture in which Kristen’s genitals are visible with a similar image in which they are not] and I was like ‘No’ [in the end they used both]. I wanted to open with the portrait of Kristen wearing my coat, but they wanted this [the shot of her with a stone horse’s head]. In other photographs, where she looks much more ugly, I lost the battle. There’s always a different take.

But if it didn’t go generally how I want to have it, I wouldn’t give them the pictures. There’s no reason for me to do it. I would be stupid if I took out this picture and this one [points to the graphic images] and just ended up with this one and this [the safer photographs]. There has to be a balance. But it was pretty extreme [on the shoot] and she is pretty extreme. There were pictures where she was cutting herself – it wasn’t me telling her to do it, she was doing that herself, and I was like ‘Um maybe we’ll take those ones out’.

BJP: How much have you worked with 032c in the past?

JT: Not so much but a bit. I like them. I did some little things for them – they asked me to photograph Richard Hamilton like six years ago, which was great. The big turning point was when they asked me to do an exhibition. They have a really excellent office, you go up in a lift and the lift opens and there’s a huge glass vitrine, which is absolutely pristine, that they have exhibitions in. I had a show there in January and it was really a success, and that was when they said they’d like to do something bigger. Also I like it because it’s a German magazine – I’m German, so it’s nice for me to be doing something not only with British or American or French magazines.

BJP: Do you still enjoy working with magazines, even though you have so much success with books and exhibitions?

JT: I do yes, it gives you a different audience and it has a bigger print run. If I publish a book it’s an edition of between 500 and 10,000; they have more, so more people see it because it’s cheaper and more accessible.

BJP: Do you work in a different way if you’re shooting for a magazine than a book?

JT: It depends, but for this shoot I worked in the same way. Certainly I am moving more and more away from conservative, conventional fashion magazines to give my account of a fashion story. That doesn’t interest me so much at the moment because I’m doing so much fashion advertising, where the client is giving me a lot of money to photograph their product. If a magazine calls up and says ‘Do you want to do a Tom Ford story with Tom Ford clothes’ for nothing, in fact I pay for it, I’m thinking ‘Why the fuck would I want to do that? If my clients give me so much money to do something for them?’ It also protects my client, so I can give something special to them where I get reimbursed.

BJP: Is that also because fashion magazines have changed though, so now you would do a Tom Ford story, with only Tom Ford clothes, whereas in the past you wouldn’t have used just one designer?

JT: I guess so, yes.

BJP: Are you more interested in shooting portraits now than fashion?

JT: No I just do my own thing. I very much enjoy photographing fashion, I get a lot of pleasure out of it. There are many, many excellent, very creative people you can work with, like Vivienne [Westwood] or Phoebe [Philo] at Celine or Marc [Jacobs], and they do really create something that’s wonderful. I see fashion as a sort of fantasy one should have fun with clothes, it should be pleasurable, with a sense of humour. Even if it’s a serious business – and it is a serious business, people make a lot of money from it – these creations are abstract and wonderful and one should show them like that.

I like to dress up in a suit sometimes, and when my wife gets dressed up in the evening, it’s something that should give me pleasure. I enjoy getting dressed up. Even when my daughter gets dressed up for Halloween, it’s wonderful. It’s something to photograph, this wonderful creation and what these people think about proportion and body shape. 

BJP: Are you interested in shooting fashion film?

JT: No, I don’t really understand it. I find it rather laughable what all these photographers say ‘Oh I’m shooing a movie’ and all you see is the model blinking. It’s dumb as hell. If it’s a good fashion photograph, you see the meaning of the clothing. you get so much perfect information out of it. You understand everything. All that they do [photographers who shoot fashion film] is they involve cutting editors and some crazy movement and some sort of edit. I don’t need to do it. I’ve never felt I need to do what other people are doing, I just please myself.

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy