“Do I consider my work to be sensationalist?” asks Juergen Teller. “I wouldn’t even have that conversation.” The German-born photographer is at the opening of his solo exhibition at the ICA, standing next to three life-size portraits of a nude Vivienne Westwood. It is rare that his works are presented on this scale, and suddenly these nudes are placed in a new realm – one routed in shock and sensationalism. But Teller disagrees.
Teller has spent much of his career stripping away his subjects, whether they are clothed or unclothed, predominately through his flash-bulb lighting technique – often hypnotising them in the process, and capturing momentary reactions of uneasiness, intimacy, and a haunting reality. He approaches his nude subjects with the same realism, placing them in a series of scenarios that he inevitably controls. For instance, take his images of Charlotte Rampling and Raquel Zimmermann walking around nude in a deserted Louvre gallery in Paris; or Lilly Cole lying naked, in a dirt pit.
“I am aware that I have power,” explains Teller. “But it doesn’t really make a difference if I photograph a female nude or a male nude. I don’t think I use my masculinity in a very threatening way. I possibly do, but then I do it in the same way with men, women, a landscapes and a kitten. Do you know what I mean?”
Yet, in certain works, Tellers nudes appear highly charged and under a certain spell. Model Kristen McMenamy epitomises the nude of ecstasy under Teller’s lens, in a spread for 032c Magazine. Her body appears surrendered to some irrational power as she writhers naked on the floor, gazing back at Teller. He speaks quite frequently about the intimacy he shares with his subjects, often choosing to work with those that he has known for years, rather than strangers. It is less about power and sensationalism for Teller, then it is about pure human engagement, intimacy and fragility.
Teller takes this notion of fragility one step further when placing himself in his own work, often setting up scenarios where he is left exposed, both physically and artistically. His collaboration with Charlotte Rampling (best known for her role in the 1974 film, The Night Porter) for the Marc Jacobs Spring / Summer 04′ campaign, is an often-discussed body of work. In these works, Teller lies naked in Rampling’s arms, curled up in a ball, like a newborn child. The dynamic is odd, and at times, unsettling. “I don’t really think too much about this sort of stuff,” he tells me about the idea of exposing himself. “It starts with, wouldn’t it be fun to be naked with Charlotte Rampling? The idea of it being psychologically threatening is an idea for afterwards.”
Ultimately, there is a certain conflict at the heart of Teller’s work. Although he disregards them as sensationalistic, many of his nudes are fuelled by a highly charged eroticism, and often play out power struggles. At the same time they are extremely personal. He exposes himself and his subjects, in the rawest state, making them seem vulnerable. Perhaps that is what makes his nudes so compelling.