The three slim, notebook-like, soft-cover volumes of Juergen Teller’s THE MASTER (Steidl, 8 euros each) are curiously unsettling photobooks. Easy to hold and with minimal marzipan-pink, green and grey covers, they seem to invite intimate but casual viewing. Teller’s pre-eminence as a photographer of celebrity and fashion — Victoria Beckham’s legs sticking out of a giant Marc Jacobs bag, Vivienne Westwood’s fluorescent-orange nudity, or Björk spewing spaghetti neri in Venice are iconic images now — leads one to expect a certain kind of visual pleasure from these volumes. Yet, the serving up of these pleasures turns out to be inseparable from the levelling, blanching starkness of the light in which his icons are presented.
The Master series is an ongoing anthology of encounters in which Teller and his subjects seem to play out together the thrilling, obsessive, nervous-making drama of the wresting of photographic access. They explore intimacies that are often startling in the extreme — but oddly comforting, too, in their sense of a shared, bodily vulnerability. Teller seems to bring to the intrusiveness and voyeurism of photography a naïveté that is disarming, yet fully self-aware. This eager and almost infantile need to look and know and capture comes with a directness that also allows his subjects to feel the photographer’s inevitable nervousness in bringing to them his compulsion to photograph. This transforms the inequality of the photographic exchange into a humane encounter, mingling excitement and apprehension, turning the contingencies of fashion into the rigours and difficulty of art. This drama of access — at once ardent and impudent, exquisite and gross, excessive and refined — is played out most brilliantly in Teller’s work with the British actress, Charlotte Rampling, in a book called Louis XV, images from which are also in The Master. And in this drama, the artist is always present, either robustly in person, or in the mesmerizing glare of his flash-light, shining alike on faces, tree-trunks, curves, cavities and orifices.
Mixed in with models and designers and actors, each legendary in his or her own way (or made legendary by Teller’s camera), are family and friends, together with figures that inspire or intimidate, and landscapes and architectures that warm or chill the heart. Teller is also a book-maker in the School of Gerhard Steidl; so, what begins to build up as one dwells on his many books, noticing the spilling over and circulation of images across and among different bodies of work, is the sense of a personal universe that blurs the lines between art and commerce, and in which specific ‘characters’ like Rampling and Westwood or Teller’s dead and difficult father and widowed mother (or indeed Teller himself), and places like Nürnberg or Suffolk, or artistic mentors like William Eggleston and Nobuyoshi Araki, recur like leitmotifs and take on a mysterious, quasi-mythical aura that is at once flamboyantly exposed and intensely private. But these myths, motifs and stories have to be pieced together by the reader, for there are no texts in The Master volumes, apart from cryptic titles and dates on the back-covers that often disorient the reader chronologically.
The persona of the chain-smoking, football-crazy bumpkin photographer wreaking trashy havoc in the mirrored halls of high fashion — Bottom in Titania’s bower — that Teller often projects in his work is shot through with a sort of instinctual allusiveness and sophistication that make his photography rub shoulders with the masters of the Baroque, for instance, in the more traditional museums of the West. Here, on the left, is “Roni’s Swan, New York 2011”, alluding to a pristinely ordered body of work by Teller’s friend and frequent subject, the artist Roni Horn. On the right, is “Siegmund [sic] Freud’s Couch (Malgosia), London 2006”. The wish to shoot nudes on Herr Doktor’s couch of exile in Hampstead had met with a comic end in English prudery that Teller writes about, with deadpan candour, in another book.