To anyone who has opened a magazine in the last ten years, Juergen Teller’s subjects are a familiar sight: Kristen McMenamy partying sans pants in gilded McMansions, a Botticellian Lily Cole frolicking au naturel in wooded hinterlands, hot young things collapsing in opioid dishabille on bed sheets and in bathtubs.
Teller is having quite the moment. For the February issue of W Magazine, the German photographer shot 33 celebrities in his signature washed-out style. Meanwhile, “Woo!,” a current survey of Teller’s work at the ICA in London is showering institutional validation on his genre-straddling career, calling him “one of the most important photographers of his generation.” Indeed, Teller’s influence on visual culture can’t be overstated. His overexposed, oversexed, pseudo-naive brand of portraiture has influenced Dash Snow, Terry Richardson, and Ryan McGinley, not to mention countless unsigned American Apparel advertisements and the propagating multitudes of derivative Instagram snapshots.
“Intimate,” “edgy,” “frank,” “provocative,” “raw,” are words frequently associated with Teller’s name in fashion journalism. His washed-out, strategically off-kilter photographs cultivate an air of unidealized, unaffected authenticity. Vivienne Westwood posing like a coquettish Olympia on a brocade divan; Charlotte Rampling holding naked court in the sculpture garden of the Louvre; and deadpan, dead-eyed Cindy Sherman wagging a flaccid tongue behind retro-ugly glasses deserve applause for flouting the ephebic, airbrushed standards of beauty found in the pages of glossy magazines. And yet, for all its well-intentioned soft transgressiveness, Teller’s work can lapse into seventies-porn hipster clichés and cheap sensationalism. See, for example, his banned campaign for Marc Jacobs' “Oh Lola” fragrance, starring Dakota Fanning as a latter-day Nabokovian nymphet, posed with a suggestive flower-shaped perfume-bottle between her underage thighs.
Artforum’s Jeffrey Kastner called Teller a practitioner of “consumerist erotica.” Indeed, he’s the master of it. Teller’s studied rawness has mutated into a mannered and programmatic anti-art that — through its alchemical association with commodity, celebrity, and capital — entrenches an abject, degraded species of glamour. Like many artists, Teller is eager to distance himself from too much critical interpretation of his work. In a recent interview with Artinfo UK, he declared, “People take the whole thing far too seriously. It’s just a fucking photograph.” It never really is.