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Elizabeth Goodspeed on Juergen Teller and how we understand “flawed” images

Within this context, Teller’s photographs are an obvious provocation. They humanise celebrities by casting them into unfiltered anti-glamour, while still allowing us to judge them by the same extreme beauty standards of a retouched world (it’s no surprise that a meme has emerged calling Teller’s portraiture the true “face card test”). They’re the Instagram photo dump gone commercial – a seemingly haphazard array of images embodying a kind of performed indifference, or maybe an indifference to performance. The concurrent return of faux paparazzi photos by brands from Balenciaga to Bottega Veneta taps into a similar zeitgeist, mimicking authenticity and spontaneity within carefully staged campaigns.

The discourse that reliably arises from Teller’s work likely comes down to a black box of intention. Like the fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes, we all know there’s a joke being played – but on who? Is it on the celebrity subjects, compelled into the realm of the ridiculous? Teller himself does describe his process as one of force, saying that for his W shoot, “I will kidnap the actor or actress and go to an undisclosed location, where we will take pictures for a few hours without any editor, publicist or hair and makeup artist on set.” Or is it on us, the audience, who willingly engage and amplify these real and unreal images?

The raw, unpolished nature of Teller’s photographs is often met with the same refrain: “I could do that.” In fact, that’s always been the point of them. While not without intentionality, Teller’s seemingly informal style is in fact just that: informal. Riz Ahmed, photographed leaning against Teller’s favourite tree in the 2021 issue of W, described the shoot as “the fastest of my life. 20 seconds, two clicks.” The technical barriers to creating images like this are low; no sophisticated equipment or advanced skills are required. Like Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionism, which broke free from the burdens of realism, Teller’s photography liberates itself from the norms of high-end, polished photography – and liberates us in the process as well. Artistry doesn’t necessarily lie in technical complexity or adherence to conventional standards of beauty. Instead, it lies in the ability to convey a message, evoke emotion or challenge perceptions. Teller’s work does precisely this by presenting celebrities and fashion icons in an unvarnished, almost anti-glamourous light, and selling it back to us at a premium.

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