Review of Juergen Teller: Woo! London

Juergen Teller’s Woo! at the ICA, London, is a showcase of the greatest work from Teller’s longstanding, unwavering career. Not only has he been wholeheartedly embraced by the art world, he has somehow managed to stick firmly in with the changeable, faddy fashion crowd for more years than should be expected. Like the many fashion relics that he has embraced in his images – and shown in a manner entirely alien to most fashion glossys – he has somehow found a way of his own that has seen him stuck him in favour.

One of the most recognisable, and greatest things about his work, is his ability to portray every subject entirely stripped back. Very few get past his lens with their glossy, conventional beauty intact (apart from Kate Moss and a stacked, shiny Marc Jacobs who both look otherworldly), yet he still portrays their entirely natural and individual beauty. Subjects such as Vivienne Westwood and Lily Cole are presented so far from the familiar fashion world that their images seem like an intimate shot of a friend. The saggy bits (in which Teller revels) show strength, the pale, pore focused faces break the veil that normally exists between the viewer and the sitter in portrait photography, no matter how up close and personal.

Teller, speaking at the opening, said Westwood thinks the image he took of her when they first worked together was “the sexiest photo of her ever”. Despite the “warts and all” honesty in the images, you end up, not with a vulnerable subject as you might expect, but with a stripped back powerhouse, baring all and staring straight back at you. This is another thing he states he searches for in his subjects: an abundance of self confidence. “Self confidence” he claims, is all anyone wants in another person. Teller himself is relatively shy, though he is articulate and clearly has no doubts about his own abilities. He is softly spoken, and says he felt an affinity with fellow introvert, Kurt Cobain. Rather tellingly, the huge portrait of Cobain that hangs next to Westwood’s brazen shot focuses on his mass of floppy hair, all but covering his face. In true Teller style, the image focuses so adeptly on his gestures and manner, that the viewer can still instantly recognise it as Cobain.

Although Teller’s practice will be replecated again and again in college portfolios, fashion magazines and by young whipper snappers biting at his heels, he remains a true original, mainly through his flaws. Or rather, his embracing of flaws. When asked his preferences between colour and black and white photography he claimed he found it hard to make the shift from black and white to colour at college, because he simply wasn’t good enough at colour. This may go some way in explaining his entirely unconventional (and renowned) use of colour; muted tones with a disarming emphasis on select areas. The brilliant, peachy orange of Westwood’s hair is perhaps not the tone that would come out in a perfect digital shot, and through this, his images are captivating. One gets the impression with Teller, that rather than knowing, or bothering to follow the set rules of colour, he is instead feeling around instinctively and coming up with a way of his own. He connects with his colour in rather like his subjects, in a way that no one else could imagine.

Through his work, Teller has created an image of the world that is entirely original. Though it doesn’t follow the strict rules of either fashion or art, he has created an aesthetic into which even the most image conscious public figure shouldn’t fear to step. They are guaranteed to be in a pair of hands that will show them in an entirely beautiful light. Even though it certainly won’t be a perfect light.

Juergen Teller: Woo! Until 17 March, ICA, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH.

Emily Steer

1. Juergen Teller, Bjork and son, Iceland 1993, courtesy of ICA and the artist.
2. Juergen Teller, Kate Moss, No.12, Gloucestershire, 2010, courtesy of ICA and the artist.
3. Juergen Teller, Teenager, Suffolk 2010, courtesy of ICA and the artist.