There is a place between the text and the image that is seen as a space for creation. Juergen Teller (Eerlangen, Germany, 1964) masterfully refers to that intersection to express his most intimate and biographical side in his latest publication: Donkey Man and Other Stories, (Rizzoli). It is a 608-page volume where photography meets the word in a somewhat cathartic exercise, which covers the multiple experiences that underlie three decades of artistic endeavor.
The publication is presented with a self-portrait of the photographer, who rests placidly naked on a donkey. The image was taken in his London studio in 2016 in order to exert a purifying and liberating effect on the author due to an unpleasant incident that occurred in the mid-1980s in Turkey, an attempted sexual assault in a desert and on the back of an ass. After a violent combat – and without getting off the donkey – the artist miraculously managed to dissuade his attacker. He was never able to tell the story. Not even those close to him. Until, thirty years later, already one of the most influential photographers of recent times, he had the need to take this tender self-portrait, as a compendium of the bad and the good experiences that make up life and its complexity.
Teller’s rich universe is inhabited by animals — snails and frogs jumping on plates — celebrities — from Kate Moss to Kim Kardashian and Pep Guardiola, to name just a few — and friends like Charlotte Rampling and Boris Milkhaïlov. It is also full of pine forests, models posing nude on Freud’s couch, phallic forms, food and family portraits, as well as his self-portraits. A melting pot that reaches its maximum temperature through its ineffable and distinctive gaze, always seasoned by humor and provocation, in which its appetite for photographing life is appreciated, without fear and with passion. Teller has the gift of knowing “to reflect the world as it is, to show the true identity of the people”, as Edward Enninful, editor of the British edition of Vogue, in one of the writings included in the publication. “She bridges the gap between fashion and art because she is brave through her honesty, and she doesn’t take anything too seriously. With him artifice disappears. Nobody is capable of doing it like him ”.
Teller began his life in the mid-eighties in London, where he soon had the opportunity to photograph Björk and Morrissey. It would not take long to shake up the world of fashion photography with a snapshot of model Kristen McMenamy naked, with the word Versace written on her chest within a carmine scribbled heart. Over the years, he has managed, among others, the campaigns of Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs and Celine. His photographs often seem both spontaneous and posed. They all bear that inimitable and anti-glamor stamp that so many have tried to plagiarize and that would help redefine the visual language of the nineties. “Juergen knows how to locate the elements of an image with a certainty that is as radical as it is direct,” emphasizes the artist Donatien Grau in the prologue. The publication has a total of 400 images, many of which have illustrated the great fashion headlines, satisfying the author’s desire to gather his editorial work in a single volume, as a way to pay tribute to the printed magazine.
The text plays a very important role: it contributes to underline the narrative potential of the images in a global way and gives another dimension to the monograph. These are stories written by the author himself about his experiences, which reveal the most irreverent and also the most tender and human side of this enfant terrible of photography. Also included are the testimonies of his collaborators and a conversation between the German actor Lars Eidinger and Irene Teller, the artist’s mother, a figure that acquires great relevance within the book. The photographer’s use of the juxtaposition of images stands out, creating parallel and conflicting universes. A game of contrasts that is implicit in all his work, as reflected in the campaign carried out for Saint Laurent in the Vogue British, where he photographed the models next to a homeless camp north of Paris. The photographer thus questioned the meaning of the clothes and the very nature of the subject. He had already done something similar in his series Paradis, in which he placed actress Charlotte Rampling and model Rachel Zimmerman naked in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, challenging and reinterpreting the tradition of the revered French institution.
The frogs on the plates pay homage to the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer in whose impudence, frankness and intensity when addressing the issues the German found the key notes of his own voice. “We have a few things in common: smoking, drinking and women. Photography only makes us leave the house ”, his friend William Eggleston, with whom he drove through the state of Bavaria, would tell him. It is, however, the pleasure of the act of photographing that draws him to the always controversial Nabuyoshi Araki, along with the sentimental touch that exudes his work. In Donkey Man and Other Stories the tension between the public and the private, between the fiction and the autobiographical, outlines and defines his style. This characteristic is also reflected in the work of the Japanese author, who would achieve fame with Sentimental Journey, a love poem dedicated to Yoko, his wife. Living and photographing mean the same to both artists.
“For Juergen Teller, photography springs from an act of love,” writes Grau. In his work are present his partner, Dovile, his children, his mother, his friends and his father, who committed suicide. His father hated football, a fact that the author took advantage of when he decided to take a self-portrait at night, naked, a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other, in front of his father’s grave holding a ball with his foot. Like a child, through defiance, he profaned his memory while worshiping him. In short, Teller’s work deals with the act of living, but also with the vulnerability of being, while making it clear that there are no rules in his artistic work.
608 pages, 133 euros.
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