Frames Blog Federico Serrani

The thousand lives of Juergen Teller

19 February 2024

by Jasmina Trifoni

 

Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, Victoria Beckham was in the top five of the most photographed women in the world. In the star system and, especially among insiders, she was known for her slightly excessive tropics-plus-tanning-bed tan showcased 12 months a year, for being pathologically averse to smiling, and – a serious and rather unusual trait for an Englishwoman – for her absolute lack of a sense of humor. However, in 2008, Beckham surprised everyone when she agreed to pose for an ironic advertising campaign by Marc Jacobs, in which the German photographer Juergen Teller captured her, or rather, her highly tanned bare legs, with black pumps featuring a candy pink sculpted heel, disheveledly protruding from a large shopping bag branded with the American designer’s logo.

Recalling that shot, which made it onto the list of 40 outrageous photographs that forever changed the world of fashion, Teller says he persuaded her by flattering her with, “You’re the most photographed woman in the world. And today, what’s most iconic in fashion are bags and shoes… You yourself are a fashion product, don’t you think?” Beckham was so pleased with it that she recently reissued that image on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of her fashion and makeup collection, with Marc Jacobs’ blessing, of course.

This is just one of the thousand anecdotes hidden behind the iconic shots of Juergen Teller who – this time, despite being German – are so creative, humorous, seductive, subversive, and even revolutionary, that they earned him a place of honor among the most influential fashion photographers of the last decades.

For a few days (until April 1, 2024), about a thousand of his works are being admired, astonishing and entertaining, in a large exhibition at the Triennale di Milano titled Juergen Teller – I Need to Live. After debuting in a different form and with different photographic choices at the Grand Palais Éphémère in Paris, it retraces his astounding career, which often had Italy as its backdrop.

 

Born in 1964, Teller defies all definitions, excelling in fashion photography (in addition to Marc Jacobs, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Prada are among his most loyal clients), in powerful and often irreverent portraiture, as well as in images that blend with still life and street photography, showing a unique and enviable propensity to bite into life. Or rather, its thousand lives, including himself in a series of fantastical self-portraits, starting with the one chosen for the exhibition poster, where he appears languidly lying on a mattress in pink boxers and embarrassing socks, holding a bunch of colored balloons (another version of this image, with Teller naked as the day he was born, dominates the back of the first exhibition hall). In another, also in his birthday suit, he is lying on a donkey, reminiscent – as the long, hilarious story accompanying the photo reads – of a youthful vacation in southeastern Turkey, when he was harassed by a shepherd from whom he had imprudently accepted a ride on the quadruped.

The son of a family that, for generations, had a carpentry workshop specialized in making bridges for string instruments, Teller was destined to continue this tradition. But a strong allergy to sawdust and dust made him leave his small town and the woods of his birth to receive formal education in photography in Munich. From there, he moved to London where, after formidable adventures as a penniless individual, he made his big break by portraying, in a very original way, a Kate Moss so sexy in her teenage and almost bloodless appearance, thus becoming the most sought-after photographer for the portfolios of young girls dreaming of a career like Moss’s. But if the exhibition features a remarkable series of fashion photographs, like the unforgettable one of legs wrapped in YSL tights, equally amazing are those of great personalities, from a naked Vivienne Westwood posing as Pauline Bonaparte to Björk with her daughter, immersed in an Icelandic thermal pool, as well as the joyful one of his mother, whose face is enclosed between the jaws of a (fortunately, stuffed) crocodile, and the series dedicated to his father, who committed suicide, in the woods he loved so much.

But more than anything, it’s the wonderful series in which he photographed his private life, with images of Dovile Drizyte, his beautiful wife married in 2021 and also his creative partner, who appears veiled during their vacation in Iran or in The Myth, the most touching and romantic series of the show, created in the rooms of the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, on the shores of Lake Maggiore. Here, Teller photographed, with loving and highly sensual obsessiveness, his Dovile lying naked with her (beautiful) legs up, a position that, according to ancient fertility rituals, should increase the chances of conception.

In the subsequent life, and as the exhibition progresses, Iggy, the daughter of the couple Juergen-Dovile, makes her appearance, named in honor of the rockstar Iggy Pop who, not by chance, is captured in a powerful large-sized image. The child becomes the protagonist of a series shot on a recent June 29, the day of the feast dedicated to Saint Paul celebrated almost insanely in the baroque Sicilian town of Palazzolo Acreide.

There, embracing the local tradition with enthusiasm, they subject Iggy to the rite known as the denuding of infants, in which children are carried through the crowd to the Saint’s procession cart to receive his blessing. Little Iggy then becomes the superstar of an ironic reenactment of Teller’s most famous shots, in a series that sees her becoming in turn the double of Iggy Pop, the writer Jan Didion, a Kate Moss between the sheets, in a pink wig, and other celebrities, as well as her grandmother between the jaws of the crocodile. Including Victoria Beckham, with the child tucked into Marc Jacobs’ shopping bag. While applauding the genius, one might be tempted to call Childline.

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