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  • Christian Hain

Tell us of “Tellers” - The Photo Stories of Jürgen Teller

(Berlin.) Two new photo shows at Martin Gropius Bau, let’s start with the less obscure: You know Jürgen Teller, of course you do, at least by name. He’s a photographer, one of those Germans who rose to fame and wealth around the turn of the millennium. If you, like me, tend to mix them up, forever unable to tell your Tellers from your Tillmans': This is not the Turner awardee, but the one married to that famous gallerist, which probably imports even more. Some of you might have seen Enjoy Your Life! already, the show was at Bundeskunsthalle Bonn last summer, then wintered in Prague. You could call it a new print from an existing negative.

What’s in a name? – Sometimes, just about everything.

Born German, living in London since 1986, Jürgen Teller identifies with two languages, and it shows in his work, literally. In German, a “Teller” is a “plate”, a “dish”, and indeed, numerous photographs are printed on dishes. Some show the artist himself, and thus are “double self-portraits” - or even adding a third to the already multiplied “I”: photographer, photographed, and support/framework. The artist is a gifted story-Teller, too. He’s telling about his life and work, and maybe we should not take it all literally. The photo novel, or visual short story, is a specialty of Teller’s. He uses it to tell (authentic?) autobiographical anecdotes where photos and handwritten words work together for the make-believe. Has Jürgen Teller narrowly escaped being raped on a camel ride through Turkey? Or does he think it a nice story to accompany a nude self-portrait on camelback? Did his mother really marry his uncle after his evil father’s death? What about all the detailed “memories” dating back to childhood? &c. The use of handwriting underlines the purported intimacy.

Photography only ever captures an image, an interpretation, be it appropriate, false, or fake. The largest exhibition room features the biggest example of this kind, relating an episode from Teller’s professional life. The first person narrator/teller, a photographer, prepares a shooting with celebrities who change from day to day, being all that: exchangeable, and ends up deep in the Canadian woods with two anonymous women who spontaneously decide to get naked because they know and admire his work. Never happened to you? Well, go tell your life then.

This is called At moments I Felt Like Being in a Strange Dream in a Medieval Forest with 2 Naked Canadian Girls, Doing Hula-Hoops, Covered All Over in Sweet Maple Syrup, System Magazine. Quite a title.

There’s no maple syrup. Was he really in Canada to shoot celebrities for a different magazine, and finally found himself in this – dream, all by accident? Or were they not rather selected from the stables of a model agency, because System Magazine’s art director thought it a great idea? For the story it’s not even important where it was shot. Maybe it’s Canada. Maybe we’re just told so.

The good thing about photography is, you may do commercial stuff without any damage to your gallery street cred. (The bad thing: there are way to many photographers around.) Jürgen Teller spends most of his time working for fashion mags and other campaigns. His famous New York gallery won’t mind. (Jealous, dear painters? Dare designing a T-Shirt just once, and you’re out.) Still, there lurks the eternal question, what makes photography an art, or: what is the difference, if there is any, between artistic photography and photographic art? Teller’s style is frequently described with the terms “amateur aesthetic”, or “humanizing aesthetic”. His is not the average magazine language. Yet, it willingly resembles your, and my, iPhoto gallery.

Back to those - not, or in a new sense: photographic - plates, and Jürgen telling his life as a Teller/dish. Being served, serving to us. That’s what makes a good photographer, at least a famous one: to appropriate his motif, to possess, to label, to transform it into his image of how it “is”. With the means of photography, he drags others into his world, he tells his view of them. Printed on dishes, they become a Teller, told – Teller-ized, plated. Stamped, sucked into the photographers personality. The stardom, the narcissism of his motives, he shares and seeks it for himself as well.

MGB’s promo poster, hanging all over Berlin, will immediately tell you: This is personal. It's a staged portrait of Jürgen Teller in a fur coat, with handwritten annotations pointing to different body parts. We discover what is (supposedly) going on in his mind - during the creative process, after the first shot of a series, before editing. 'The legs should be thinner, the stomach too, the hair fuller', it can all be done today, and it is. By exposing the thoughts, the expectations he’d need to fulfil were this a magazine job, and Teller an ordinary (fashion) photographer. He thus hints at one possible difference between art and business/other industries. We are led to believe, Teller refuses the expectations and seeks to preserve his artistic freedom, refuses to follow the rules he knows by heart, and avoids becoming exchangeable, random, in order to reaffirm his individuality as an artist. Maybe, there is truth in it.

Another work, an anatomical drawing shows the limits of photo editing, of the image/photography itself, when each organ is marked with it designated cancer.

Occasionally, Jürgen Teller chooses a different camera and records moving images. Dieter, 2017, follows the artist through an exhibition of his works. But the disguise does not look right, the Dieter persona appears more like a High School Art Teacher than the philistine he’s supposed to be, asking in ignorance: “So that’s art now?”. One of the less convincing works.

And then, the Kanye/Kim series. It made the headlines, art and else, in 2015. Maybe, to judge it, it’s best to adopt once more an elitist attitude. What do we have here? A celebrity couple, a rapper and a – well, whatever. A Cardassia-, Kartass-, - that rapper’s betrothed, an offspring of the curious freak show family. Maybe, Teller intended to shrink them back to what they basically are, far from the glamour; to go, and show what hides behind the makeup and the PR. They most certainly did not realize, being used to taking orders from all sorts of image building and -altering people. White trash (yes, they’re black, or half of them is, but that’s merely a detail, it does not matter at all), tasteless, lewd, frolicking in the wild. Finally, for once, all the vulgarity, the obscenity, breaks through the wealthy disguise. And maybe, Teller’s adopted Britishness shows again. Not only we continentals know a certain cliché of the insular working class, something Martin Parr likes to document; or think of Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest movie The Brothers Grimsby. - That’s the Kimye of Teller’s Kanye, Jürgen & Kim series (albeit shot in France). Nothing would feel more natural than a big bellied fellow with bad teeth and Manchester United jersey handing them a beer can, then smashing the photographer’s face.

These pictures are at least as much about the kind of people adoring the celebs, as they are about them. They could be taken from a nobody’s Facebook. For once, the rich and famous appear like one of “us”, equal to their audience, as if arbitrarily picked from the masses. Which they are. Kanye West’s talents as a rapper don’t matter in the context. This is about (personal) class, about personality not celebrity. They were once like you, and wanted to be like this, something else – your dream, their dream, a photographers’ dream.

Jürgen Teller’s disrespectful approach cuts celebrities back to life size, and, at the same, it serves to elevate and confirm the photographer’s ego. It’s Kanye, Jürgen & Kim, mind, that’s where he positions himself. The one side is, to show them in a light we can all relate to, “they’re nothing special”. The other, to make Teller the true personality, the most important person, here. Because he, and people like him, creates them, and people like them.

In a different series, Jürgen Teller unites actress Charlotte Rampling with a fox, and makes the encounter in the back lawn of a middle class terraced house appear all casual. You know these people, cat ladies, maybe she’s found the fox and started to feed him. In the end, both are seen drinking from the same dish. Celebrities and photographers nurse each other, too. By the cunning photographer’s milk, a nobody grows into a somebody, and they both feed from the same facts.

The act of exploring, or –posing, the powers of photography, also seems to motivate one more series, not called "Understanding France" although it serves frogs on plates: Teller presents toads in glossy scenes; with a kiss of his camera, he creates a Prince Charming. Just like behind many a VIP, a fat, warty, toad is hiding.

Jürgen Teller is famous, but the media interest in a second opening at Martin Gropius Bau was still bigger. People love to see the stars in front of the camera, not behind. That’s what Foto.Kunst.Boulevard (Photo.Art.Tabloid.) is about. Someone’s connections/political influence made it possible that the public gallery now celebrates a newspaper. Or the parody of one, a “newspaper”, as the paper in question is BILD (literally: Picture/Image), Germany’s Sun, or Daily Mail, or National Enquirer. The very image of yellow press. Since its beginnings sixty-five years ago, it has been targeting a rather illiterate audience, that’s why a former editor in chief today may call its “visionary” founder the "creator of an early Instagram". If you read his introduction to the catalogue, you wonder whether he’d be able to write a single sentence exceeding primary school level.

We see BILD photos of the Dalai Lama and Pope Benny, of sports and show celebrities, global and German. The latter you won’t know. I only recognized a tiny fraction. It’s doubly annoying if the image title does not quote a name (because the image is imagined to stand by itself?). I’m still unable to tell who is the woman on the catalogue cover embracing a guy equally unknown to me. The title says Lord of the Rings, and three of them adorn her fingers. Perhaps these two are married (thrice?). She was attending the press visit, but not introduced by name. The/a girl from page 3 (in the case of Bild: page 1) was absent.

In ochlocracy, politicians belong to the same class. We discover an image of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder posing in front of a wall of BILD covers with photos and HEADLINES relating to him and his POLITICS. There are more, Obama, Merkel, Putin, caught in the act or put in pose, like all the others.

Occasionally, the hanging appears almost ironic. Yet, there is strategy in images: Imagine an ensemble of four photographs by Tom Lemke, three of them showing people you’ve never heard of. The fourth is Quentin Tarantino. For the German audience, it will feel normal, appropriate, at least that’s what is hoped for, the identification, the classification, by photography. It’s what “world famous in ___” means.

All popularity is relative, and imagined, but America’s reign over the popular arts means you may show a picture of an American actor, athlete or musician in a village in Burundi, Burma, or Bavaria, and people will cheer. That’s only the case with very few exceptions from other continents (Christiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi – you ‘Muricans don’t have a clue about those, have you?).

The audience wants to be fooled, and identify with, or follow the example set by the images they see, to dream and to adapt. But in his series Peace (2011), Andreas Mühe reveals the other side. Botox victims keep staring out of a window into the night of their own reflection; it’s all they do, and their sole attraction. Society Photography is a distorting mirror for the narcissistic and those who long to take their place.

After my visit, I was heading to a mall on Potsdamer Platz around the corner from MGB. I was asked to have my photograph taken for a newly opened Italian restaurant; so was every passer-by. It makes you feel special, and they paid in pasta. I wanted to write something about it, and their less successful pro photographer, but I forgot what it was. The mental image will/must do.

Jürgen Teller, Enjoy Your Life!, 20 April-3 July 2017,

Photo.Art.Tabloid., 5 May-9 July 2017,

Martin Gropius Bau

World of Arts Magazine – Contemporary Art Criticism



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