A picture says a thousand words. But how many words say a picture?
Juergen Teller is a particularly brilliant photographer, who found himself commissioned to explain his photographs in a weekly column for Germany’s Die Zeit magazine, the supplement to his native country’s most respected newspaper. Over the course of the year that this collaboration was in print, Die Zeit forwarded Juergen the feedback letters. They were varied; some enthusiastic and celebratory, others outrageously and depressingly scathing. So naturally, Juergen has done what every other person wouldn’t do: printed every one for public consumption. His new book Pictures and Words, published by Steidl, lays out the pictures and words printed in Die Zeit, with the reader letters forming their own booklet tucked into the sleeve, entitled ‘Literature’, pronounced with your tongue in your cheek. Honest, ‘as is’ and as always, unpretentious, the book, like Juergen’s photography, will surprise and delight.
i-D Founder and Editor-in-Chief Terry Jones sat down with his friend Juergen over a plate of prawns and had a chat that covered the book, the letters, and a great deal more.
Terry Jones: So, tell me a little bit about the book and how it started…
Juergen Teller: The editor-in-chief and the art director or picture editor of Die Zeit said that they were going to be in London and asked to meet me. And, I thought “hmm, I quite like the design of that weekly, I’ll meet them.” I didn’t know what they wanted and then they offered me the column. And, I was only halfway through listening to it and I said “oh God, what an excellent opportunity to have your pictures published to a wider audience. That’s just great.” But I didn’t totally listen to the fact that they wanted me to write something too so I sent some pictures in and they said “where’s the text?” And I said, “what do you mean, what kind of text?” Then I had a couple of telephone conversations with them, where I talked about the pictures and they wrote down what I said and then sent it back to me. I really didn’t like it. So, I had to sit down myself and write it on my own.
Terry: It seems like you went through a lot of very emotional places, in the selection process and in the fact that it is not in any date sequence, which is something I like.
Juergen: Sometimes, I have really a strong picture but the story is nothing. There is no story. Let’s say Victoria Beckham in the shopping bag for Marc Jacobs, that’s a powerful image. But when you explain it, it kind of defeats the picture. It kills the picture.
Terry: And each week you were getting letters that were coming back…
Juergen: There were some good responses, people said how good it was and how excited they were. So, I talked to the magazine about that but then there were all these awful reader letters and I said ‘well, can I have a look?’ And then they said ‘let’s wait for a bit, we’re going to collect them and send them over.’ There was this whole pile and that’s a heavy edit of the ones I chose. And, I was sitting on a chair and I thought ‘fucking hell man.’ I sunk into my chair even deeper and thought ‘am I really such a bad person? I must be really bad.’ They were just devastating, terrible reader letters. You know, that somebody says ‘I can’t take a straight picture and I can’t light a picture, and their daughter would win a photo contest and I would come last.’ Things like that never bothered me, but, they were so personal about my stories and they were attacking me so personally that it was really painful. I thought hang on a minute, I’ve got to do something with this. I’m going to call this book ‘Literature’, about me, and publish the reader letters. They’re actually very well punctuated and very well written, these people took a long time sitting down and forming their sentences.
Terry: When you were selecting images, were they ones that you thought would provoke?
Juergen: No I didn’t think about that. I never think about that ever. I just do what I feel and what I want to do; what moves me and what I want to take a photograph of, and what I want to write about.
Terry: Is death a reoccurring theme in your work? From your father’s suicide, is it something that’s always on your mind?
Juergen: No I wouldn’t say it’s always on my mind but it’s always there. Especially, as I was 24 when my dad committed suicide and it leaves heavy scars, you know, it leaves something heavy, for example, last year I was the age that my father killed himself. I am 48 now and It’s weird that I am already older than my father ever was. It’s of course always there. Not that I think about it all the time.
[Audio begins here...]
Terry:You said that your father gave you the camera. When did he give it to you?
Juergen: Yes. I didn’t think of it. That was a total obscure idea for me when I was sixteen. That’s the only time he kind of, approached me and said ‘you’re going off on holiday, take my camera’ which, was a treasured thing for him. You know, you have a super eight camera and have slideshows in the evenings, a stereo, a black and white T.V. But, a camera was something, it was something really treasured by my dad and he wanted to give it to me.
Terry: So when did the photography start?
Juergen: It’s all written down. When I was nineteen or something, eighteen. My cousin was an enthusiastic hobby photographer and he took me on an air change because I was studying. I have told this story so often. It’s a bit boring.
Terry: We can skip that bit because the bit I don’t know is when you came to London.
Juergen: I came in September ’86 and I didn’t know anyone, just came in my car and I slept in my car for a couple of days. Then, I met someone through a friend and they let me sleep there for a couple of nights on the couch. Funnily enough, it was Ladbroke Grove. Surprisingly, they knew somebody in Clapton E5 who had a spare room. I had an A-Z geography book and it took me about three hours to get there… A girl opened up the door and I just thought ‘is she fucking joking?’ £35 per week. I could hardly move in there. It was just a bed and that was it. I’ve never seen such a tiny room in my whole fucking life. And, I took it.
Then, my aim was to learn English because I couldn’t speak English as I was really arrogant at school and I thought ‘why would I ever need to learn English?’ Stupid of me. There was this lovely black hairdressing salon underneath the place. They were really friendly and really jokey and in ’86 there really weren’t many Germans. They thought ‘what the hell is this guy doing here? He doesn’t speak a word of English.’ So, I got friendly with them and I was so eager to know more than three words like ‘this is yellow’ and ‘I have a red car.’ And, that led me to my first job. They asked me to do some portraits of their black hair dos.
With my broken English I called all these people up and they would just put the phone down because, it was obvious that I wouldn’t lead to anything from their point of view. But, the best people said ‘come along.’ It was Mark Lebon, it was Nick Knight and a couple of others. Nick Knight and Mark Lebon took the longest time over me. It was amazing. You know. I walked straight into Ray Petri. He walked in and he took a shine to me, and said ‘get a haircut.’ I was like ‘what?’ And Mark took me along to a couple of shoots and Ray always took me to the side, and said just a couple of confident things.
Then, Nick Knight called me up and said ‘why don’t you come now?’ And, I was like ‘ahhhhh….ok….’ I could hardly write Old Street. What was the studio?
Terry: It’s in Curtain Road.
Juergen: Yes. Click studios. I was like ‘oh god, oh god, oh god, I got the name right.’ Then, an hour and a half later I was there, shaking, and he was with Peter Saville doing a test for the Yohji Yamamoto catalogue. He says ‘ok, just load the camera’ and I knew so well how to load a Haselblad camera and I was like ‘…urrrrr….’ It took me ages to load it, I was so nervous.
Then, I had my portfolio from the school in Germany with me and Charlotte, his wife, was there and they were both extremely encouraging. He said ‘what do you want? Why do you want to assist? Your work looks so different to the work which is out there now at the moment.’ I was at a really low point, totally running out of money, depressed and I thought ‘I’m just not going to make it.’ Couldn’t go back to Germany as a loser and they encouraged me so much. They gave me such a…
Juergen: Boost. And actually, so far that Charlotte made active phone calls to this person and that person, gave me a piece of paper and said ‘at 3 o’clock, Tuesday, you are going to this address to meet this guy and then on Thursday you’re going there and this and then the other.’ I was like ‘ok…’ looking into my A-Z, thinking ‘how am I going to find it, I’ve got to be there at 3’o clock. Oh my god.’ Left at 12 to be at 3 you know. Then suddenly the magazines came along like i-D and The Face and Blitz. A portrait here, a portrait there. My first ever published photograph was in i-D.
Pictures and Words is available now at steidlville.com
Text: Sarah Raphael
Images from top: On Tour with Kurt Cobain / Teenager, featuring Juergen Teller’s daughter Lola / The Little Bugger featuring Björk and her son / Octopussy / Beaming Ed featuring Juergen Teller’s son / The Model, featuring Andrej Pejic/ The Knickers featuring Kristen McMenamy.