Kim Kardashian West for System Magazine by Juergen Teller.
For the past ten days, Phillips’ luminous glass box in Berkeley Square has been home to an exhibition of new photographs by Juergen Teller. The show underscores a Teller moment, with Arena Homme + and System, two of the weightier style bi-annuals, both featuring expansive portfolios of recent work. Put those hundreds of disparate images together and it’s obvious that they are united by one over-riding theme: Juergen Teller. Obvious, that is, to everyone except the man who made them. Or so he insists. “I didn’t even realise when I looked at the exhibition, and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s all about me.’ Then I thought, ‘Fuck it, it works. What else am I going to do?’”
But what else has he ever done except refract his own life through his work? That is now truer than ever. There were three stories on show at Phillips. The first was centered on Teller’s stay at the Mayr Clinic in Austria, around which revolved a constellation of family matters, like his Aunt Gisele’s 70th birthday party. The second was a photographic paean to football fanatic Teller’s “man crush,” Pep Guardiola, the manager of Bayern Munich. The third — inevitably the focus of media attention — was Teller’s collaboration with Kanye and Kim Kardashian West, also for System Magazine. The trio’s day out in the French countryside has already entered Internet annals as “the most bizarre photo shoot of all time.” As the story that seemed farthest from Teller’s (dis)comfort zone, it offers some illuminating insights into his motivations.
Previously, Teller had photographed West for the New York Times and enjoyed the experience so much that he suggested meeting up again in Paris. “I said, ‘What about doing something with your wife?’ And he said, ‘I’ll style her’. Stupid me, I thought I’m just going to go over there for half an hour to photograph her in their hotel room. But that wasn’t fun for them at all. Kanye ordered in all the clothes, and the hair and makeup and suddenly it was a big production. Then I realised what I’d got myself into.”
In the interests of “big,” Teller decided on something outside, obviously impossible in Paris with all the paparazzi. The Chateau D’Ambleville, an hour outside the city and formidably walled away from prying eyes, seemed like a viable option. “But when we got there I suddenly thought this beautiful French garden looked too much like their wedding in Italy. It didn’t feel quite right. And I’m seeing all this countryside around and I’m thinking, ‘I just want to do it there.’” So that was how Kim Kardashian West came to be posed against a backdrop that looks like a derelict barnyard.
Teller was so fascinated by the opportunity to work with the Wests that he ceded control over re-touching, something he’s never done before. It’s curious to consider such a thing, given that one quality that defines his photographs is their lack of vanity — perverse in the industry where he makes his living. But, equally, he still managed to assert himself when, confronted by people whose control of their own image is obsessively absolute, he put himself in the picture, literally and figuratively inserting himself between the couple. Teller’s Kimye portfolio is called Kanye, Juergen & Kim. For every careful Kanye-styled and positioned shot of Kim, there’s pole-walking Juergen in his red puffer, toque and short shorts, doggedly fording a freezing stream, scaling mini-mountains of rural detritus. Adding to the obstacle course flavour of these photos is the fact that he’s trailing an incongruous wheelie bag. Metaphor alert! “It’s a comment about how difficult it is to make an original picture,” Teller clarifies. “About doing something other people don’t do. But I can do it. And Charlotte Rampling would have done it, Vivienne Westwood would have done it.” (Both women have bared their souls — and, in Dame Vivienne’s case, a lot more — for Teller.)
And that is, of course, why Kanye West did it, and brought his wife along for the ride. Teller is a person who people do things for. He laughs heartily at the thought. “They only do it because they see it in me. It’s very difficult to explain, but it makes complete sense. I want adventure in my life. I want to do things I haven’t done before. These Hollywood people are so careful of their image and looking right, but there’s a wildness when I come into the photographs. I just want to wade through rivers, climb mountains. And I prevail.”