Fashion and Depravity go Together in Juergen Teller's New Book

by Violet Conroy on 24 November 2021

Spanning the past three decades, Donkey Man and Other Stories sees Juergen Teller capture fashion, family and nature with unvarnished humour and emotion.

Spanning the past three decades, Donkey Man and Other Stories sees Juergen Teller capture fashion, family and nature with unvarnished humour and emotion.

'I don't consider myself as an art photographer. Nor as a fashion photographer. I consider myself as a photographer who produces work,' said Juergen Teller in a SHOWstudio interview from 2004. This statement still rings true today; a new 608-page book by the German photographer, Donkey Man and Other Stories, includes fashion editorials with some of the world's most famous models, portraits and nudes of the creative elite, and sprightly landscapes and still lifes from the past three decades. There's Charlotte Rampling communing on all fours with a fox, Marc Jacobs disappearing in a cloud of vape smoke, a close-up of Miuccia Prada's unmanicured toes peeking out from a pair of furry Miu Miu slides, and Kim Kardashian popping her derrière by a pile of rubble. The book is described in the introductory text not as a retrospective but as an 'atlas' of works (high and low), while autobiographical accounts written by Teller, Edward Enninful and Kristen McMenamy lend the images new meaning.

Kate Moss, Index magazine supplement, London, 1998 © Juergen Teller

Teller, like many of his peers, refutes the 'fashion' photographer label; most fashion photographers have little interest in clothes, but magazine and advert commissions provide them with an excuse and a budget to make more work. Plus, Teller's photographs for magazines like i-D, Vogue and Arena Homme + stand in stark contrast with the polished, impossibly slick fashion imagery that prevails today. His work is instead gritty, unvarnished and playful, although his humour often belies a more serious message.

In one account from Donkey Man and Other Stories, Teller writes about going to Paris in 2019 to shoot a Saint Laurent campaign and noticing hundreds of refugee tents crammed into a ring road nearby. 'Five minutes later. I was in the studio, which was full of beautiful women and gorgeous clothes,' he writes. 'It was a very odd feeling.’ The resulting photos poke fun at the tone-deafness of high-end fashion; images of models including Binx Walton, Kiki Wilhelm and Freja Beha Erichsen posing in Anthony Vaccarello's expensive designs on the street are juxtaposed with grubby pictures of urinals and sagging tents parked up on the Paris pavement. Another story called 'Too Fat For Fashion' chronicles Teller's horror at realising he was too large to fit into Marc Jacobs clothes for a self-portrait campaign with Rampling; he had no choice but to go nude. Fashion, Teller's photos and stories seem to say, is not for everyone.

Leg, snails and peaches No.43, POP magazine, London, 2017 © Juergen Teller

But family is. Teller admits that his favourite person to photograph is his mother Irene, who in one image, kisses Peter Lindbergh smack on the mouth. Childhood stories and photographs, both fond and fraught, are included of his father who died by suicide; one of his most controversial self-portraits, Father and Son, sees Teller naked at midnight by his father's grave, replete with a beer, a football and a cigarette. The self-portrait on the cover of the book, of a nude Teller sprawled out on a donkey in his concrete West London studio, tells a much darker story. In 'The Donkey Ride', the artist writes of how a stranger tried to rape him while they rode on a donkey through the Turkish desert in the mid-1980s; against all odds, he clung on to the donkey for dear life and survived the ordeal.

Suzi Leenaars, Uh No.39, Self Service magazine, London, 2016 © Juergen Teller

Children seem to understand Teller's work best. ‘Juergen Teller just wants puzzling things. Other people just want beautiful things. And he does it in ad photos too,' says a perceptive Bavarian child in a POP editorial. Whether photographing Rihanna, OJ Simpson or Kate Moss, humour, nudity and depravity are key elements of Teller's work. All this from someone McMenamy described in the early 90s as 'a small, dishevelled German kid with a little slightly Soviet-looking camera' backstage at a Helmut Lang show – the view may look nice from the inside, but Teller prefers the outside; from there, you can see the full picture.

Donkey Man and Other Stories is published by Rizzoli.

“Enjoy Your Life, Junior!” POP magazine, Bubenreuth, Bavaria, 2017 © Juergen Teller



Interview: Lily Cole on Juergen Teller

28 August 2014
Lily Cole talks to Nick Knight about consciously taking control of her own image by posing nude for Juergen Teller and appearing in French Playboy.

Interview: Kristen Mcmenamy on Juergen Teller

18 June 2014
Kristen McMenamy discusses the controversial photograph shot by Juergen Teller that gained her international recognition.

Interview: Juergen Teller

08 December 2004
Celebrated image-maker Juergen Teller discusses his arresting imagery in an in depth interview with Penny Martin. Broadcast 8 December 2004.
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