Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

The recent announcement of this year’s Oscar nominees called to mind a topic that never fails to boggle me, a ghost of pop culture’s past. In a tweet so imprinted on my memory that I can palpably hear him speaking, Riz Ahmed praised German photographer Juergen Teller for his project capturing the nominees for last year’s academy awards. His tweet read, "This @wmag shoot was the fastest of my life, 20 seconds, two clicks. Juergen Teller is the OG", with photos from the shoot attached. When considering a photographer’s artistic skill, you wouldn’t typically factor the rapidness of their shoots into your evaluation. It’s more the hallmark of the jaded school portrait photographer who yells "yep we’ve got the shot" after 10 seconds and produces a finished photo that ultimately leaves you with a niggling feeling of uncanny valley because you refuse to believe that the person in the photo is actually you. The twitter community descended on the tweet, mocking Ahmed and Teller for photos they claimed even Ahmed’s mother could have done a better job of taking. The published photos from the shoot were ripe for ridicule: construction work and a visibly scratched four by four appeared to be recurring motifs throughout the shoot, the celebrities were posed in bizarrely awkward positions, and little attention had been paid to lighting.

However, the stripped back and impromptu style of Teller’s photography has been his trademark throughout his career, having captured the likes of Kate Moss, Bjork, and Vivienne Westwood through a refreshingly candid lens in the past few decades. My top trumps from the Juergen Teller matrix include George Clooney brandishing his kids’ bicycles with a meek smile. He has a look in his eyes that tells you this was not the turn he expected the shoot to take but he is humbled to show off his children’s bicycles, nonetheless. There’s Tom Holland squatting in front of a tree, dressed as a manicured lumberjack, and the pièce de résistance: Jonathan Majors perched on a winding tree trunk with an expression of existential dread.

“The joy of Teller’s photography arises from the thought of Teller’s discussion with his celebrity muses”

Yet, as the photographer has leaned more into his stripped back aesthetic in recent years, he has become somewhat of a divisive creative figure. Some believe the subversive nature of Teller’s photography aims to restore a sense of normality to the celebrities he captures. Justin Kamp of The Art Newspaper argues, "Teller rules because he mixes the mystical iconography of celebrity with intensely mundane and demystifying details." By contrast, an article published early last year in Elephant addressed a "sad irony" that those who interpret his work as a medium to humanise its subjects are on the inside of an exclusive joke.


Mountain View

Lone portraits on the wall: Leah Mclaine in conversation with Connor Phillips

However, the lack of subtlety to Teller’s amateur aesthetic in his recent work creates a nuanced experience for the beholder. Celebrity photoshoots so often carry the illusions of having an innate glossiness, the notion that there were no stages of preparation before the event or disassembly afterwards, that it exists as a self-sufficient terrarium of creative perfection. Yet, the joy of Teller’s photography arises from the thought of Teller’s discussion with his celebrity muses before they are photographed. Did it take much encouragement for ASAP Rocky to peer his head through the branches of a tree and wave to the camera like a shoddily disguised pantomime villain or did it take a little coaxing?

Teller’s recent photoshoot with Julia Fox, Hollywood actress and former beau of Kanye West, saw the actress star-fished atop a mound of soiled New York snow deposited on the sidewalk, and kneeling in the street in a bizarre sacrificial manner. Once again, the amusing question arises of whether passers-by stumbled across the surreal scene while ambling to the shops to pick up some essentials. Indeed, Teller’s choice to stage his shoots in pedestrian locations would suggest he has no qualms about his shoots being disrupted by public attention. In turn, whether you dispute that Teller’s recent projects are works of pretentious self-indulgence or that his subversion of the polished celebrity trope is pioneering, the quirks of his photography invite the beholder to contextualise the images they see, often to entertaining effect, and that has value in and of itself.

Articles cited: ’The Sad Irony of Juergen Teller’s ‘Lazy’ W Magazine Shoot’ by Louise Benson (Feb, 2021)

‘You’re Wrong About Juergen Teller’ by Helen Holmes (16th Feb, 2022)