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First Juergen Teller Exhibition in over a Decade at ICA, London

By Fred Paginton

January 28, 2013

In the beginning, many thought of Juergen Teller as the antithesis of fashion photography. His alleged misuse of conventional methods spurred hatred and disgust towards his earliest works, most notably within the written array of complaints filed when working for his native German publication, Die Zeit. Gradually however, in what has become noted as a Teller custom, he managed to successfully curve ball criticism, allowing space to hallmark his brand of complicit yet honest imagery. “Woo,” opening last week at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, is the title of his first UK solo exhibition in over a decade, spanning the photographer’s influentially charismatic career throughout the last twenty years.

Spread entirely across the ICA’s gallery, Teller’s imagery, as synonymous with popular culture as it is, combines a selection of notorious editorial commissions, such as the Marc Jacobs campaigns, alongside more recent and personal works that reflect on particularly intriguing aspects of his life. Walking into the first room with Teller as he talks of the story behind each picture, it is clear that this show is as much about his own profiled journey as it is the individuals whom he’s had the opportunity to collaborate with.

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This is certainly the case when listening to him hark back to a short period spent on tour in 1991 with the relatively unknown band (at the time) Nirvana. “Hearing them sound check, and then a couple of hours later, watching them play live; I just stood there, and although I didn’t know much about them at the time, you just had this sense that what you were seeing was something very special. It’s not very often you get that,” he said. Fittingly, this notion is solidified looking towards a rare, black-and-white portrait of Kurt Cobain infamously hunched over his Fender Jaguar, a nod to Juergen’s musical foundations as a young photographer.

Teller’s intriguing pictorial insight continues with a series that seems to directly contrast his more well-known portraiture, bringing to life the previously unknown and starker aspects of his childhood. Irene Im Wald, meaning Irene in the woods, is a story of captioned images featuring his beloved mother wandering around the woodlands of their hometown. In footnotes of the sequenced images, a shocking tale is told about an encounter with a man who attempted to steal money at gunpoint from a fresh-faced Teller who’d just received a strenuously earned £200 from his mother upon arriving in London for the first time back in the mid-eighties. The refusal to hand over his cash in respect of his mother’s graft, confused the armed robbers, in which fate then determined them to make haste, a split second which could have obviously gone in a different direction.

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Displayed more distinctly than ever before; sentiment rings clear in these particular works, with Teller confessing “I didn’t have such an easy childhood, my dad killed himself when I was young.” From these indications we can gain a level of understanding into his curiosity of viewing people as a subject, his determination to see things and do things the way he wants to, no matter the cost, as he said repeatedly, “You only live once. You have to take chances. You have to take real risks to make something really exciting happen.”

Risqué, chaotic, and anarchic are often the same words thrown around when initially describing preeminent thoughts on Teller’s craft. But with “Woo,” we opine the fact that there is relatively little disorder within his works. More plainly, there is meticulous planning, careful thought, and emboldened trust at play, seen in the fixated eyes of his subjects in ways of intimacy that many could not even come close to evoke. The likes of Lily Cole hanging serenely topless, Kate Moss laying nude in a wheelbarrow, and (a personal favorite of ours) Bjork with her son swimming in Iceland, give the sense of pure, mutual comfort between individuals who are forever battling the unsettling boundaries of reality and make-believe.

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From taking in vast visuals that at once feel recognizable–especially when delving through press cut-outs within the intimately engaging Reading room–feel somewhat secret. What we can acknowledge from “Woo” is a definite distinction between the worlds of art and fashion, private and public, commercial and non-commercial, while understanding the importance of each sphere.

“The commercial world is sometimes very exciting; it enables you to get to places that sometimes you can’t get to in terms of travel and access. For example, Marc [Jacobs] asked what I thought of Cindy Sherman; I said, ‘Yes, I like her work,’ and then he said, ‘What about asking her to work together on a Marc Jacobs campaign’–I mean that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” Teller said.

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Teller has been at the forefront of fashion photography for last twenty or so years, and with that, he has been exposed to some of the most revered international artists, designers, actors, and popular figures alike, exploring a world of curiosity that is much our own. For us, viewing his work was once (although continuously pleasing) a portrayal of the rich and famous, yet more recently, has now become a tender insight into family relations, artistic nuances, and fashion command. Ultimately, Teller has a pertinent commercial side that helps him get the images he wants, but this is not really the point. “Woo” shows that he can be perfectly happy to operate outside this context.

BjorkCindy ShermanInstitute of Contemporary ArtJuergen TellerLily ColeMarc JacobsNirvana

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