If Juergen Teller had a theme song, it would be “My Way,” but not the Frank Sinatra version. No, he would make sure to subvert your expectations at every turn, and cue up the Sid Vicious cover. Like Sid, Juergen is so anti-glamour that he’s chic, always finding a peculiar beauty and joy in the uncomfortable.
His new book, Enjoy Your Life! (Steidl), published in conjunction with the recent exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, embraces the ethos the unexpected. Because what gives life a greater kick than catching you off guard with the curious and the absurd. Teller loves to hone in on things we usually ignore, or look at them from a new vantage point, demystifying their aura and allure. On the reverse, he finds a queer loveliness in things we might otherwise think a bit grotesque, savoring all of the pleasures of our strange and quixotic existence.
Throughout the book we see plates uses as a central motif, some decorated, some filled with food, and others blank and empty. They become curious metaphors for life itself, be it feast or famine, serving or being served. “You know that in German Teller means plate,” the artist asks, giving us a glimpse into his psyche and the way in which names are more than words.
For the plate is the possibility of all that can be—and all that can be lost, shattered, destroyed in just a moment’s time. In one photograph, Teller shows us a spread from a magazine upon which his words appear in a brief statement titled “The Clinic,” underneath which he reveals, “For my 50th birthday, my cousin Helmut gave me the most profound, beautiful and striking present. He made books out of my Dad’s slide photographs, which were stored and forgotten. Looking at those books made me cry. Dad killing himself, but seeing in those photographs it was not all dark days and realizing what a great photographer he was.”
This brief yet profound personal note provides a context by which we can reconsider the work, set against Teller’s family history and his reflections on life. The images take on new levels and layers of poetry as we are drawn into Teller’s world, into a disturbing yet captivating realm that first unnerves, then tickles, then delights with an unquenchable lust for life.
Here, beauty is not always pretty by any means but it compels us to a deep appreciation of what it is to be: alive, naked and unafraid, driven by forces we cannot quite articulate but must act upon all the same. Here a plate of food is even more prurient than a nude, more lascivious and sensational than mere flesh and bone.
“Everything in a wide sense is a kind of self portrait,” Teller writes on a plate he then photographs. “It’s just the way you see things and you’re curious about certain things and just excited about them.”
This pleasure can be found in something as simple as a photograph of a pink sock with a bright yellow toe, sky blue heel, and mint green piping set against a pile or dirt, or it can be found in a picture of Kim Kardashian climbing in the dirt with her bootie up in the air like we ain’t seen it enough. Or it might exist somewhere within, like the photo donkey forced to carry as massive bale of hay, recognizing yourself in the striking metaphor, as you think, “Hey, wait… Maybe there’s more to this world than I ever dared believe.”
Because there’s nothing inherently rational here: it’s a visual melee of a man who finds happiness looking at the things we would never otherwise see. Teller loves a good gag, nestled deep within his subtle yet exquisite work. He simply allows life to reveal itself, and catches it when it’s reached its most unbothered state. Whereas so many photographs are weighed down by a sense of self-consciousness, Teller’s photographs are lifted up by a feeing that no ones gives AF about the pretenses of the medium and the rules of the game.
And that’s what has made Teller a success since he first started shooting Nirvana on their Nevermind tour in 1991. He observes, “In the end, the only thing that really interests me is the interaction between two people. One of them is me, the photographer. And when these encounters touch me, then that is a good thing.”
Good for him—all the better for us. With Enjoy Your Life!, Teller reminds us: we’re only here for so long. There’s so much to be down about, so many challenges to surmount, so much distrust and betrayal abounds—but in the heart of all the pain and suffering is this little thing called love. It is love for the truth that captivates Teller, love for the truths untold that has him doing it his way.
All photos: © 2016 Juergen Teller, courtesy of Steidl and Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin.
Updated with new information and photographs. Original story published on April 18, 2018.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.