Elizabeth Goodspeed on Juergen Teller and how we understand “flawed” images
When his shoots for W Magazine were released last week, one online viewer lamented: “Why is he employed?” Taking in history, technology and taste, our US editor-at-large explains the world’s most divisive photographer.
Last week, W Magazine released its yearly Best Performances issue, shot for the third time by German photographer Juergen Teller. Teller’s W photos, which feature celebrities including Greta Lee and Ryan Gosling dropped into uncannily normie situations, sparked an instant and inevitable reaction: viral discourse. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed Teller’s work. Some of this is aesthetic, the result of my ongoing nostalgia for shitty camera phones and high-flash photography (Weegee, anyone?). Another factor is the simple pleasure I get from the sheer statistical improbability of a Teller photograph. Describing his work can feel like playing a game of celebrity Mad-Libs: Charles Melton with a head of broccoli! Professor McGonnagal in a Loewe ad! Margot Robbie in a showroom of mannequin heads! But most of all, I like Teller’s photos because of what they make me think about. Teller has always struck me as a photographer’s photographer, in the same way that Kubrick is a filmmaker’s filmmaker or Sargent a painter’s painter; he wields his camera as a mirror, creating commercial work while also interrogating the value of photography itself in the process.
One of the best books I read last year was Good Pictures: A History of Popular Photography, by photography historian Kim Beil. In it, she posits that the trajectory of photography as an artform is tethered to the evolution of technology. As photographic tools evolve, so too do our collective tastes and standards for quality and style. This relationship is cyclical: new technologies emerge, initially creating what are perceived as ‘flawed’ images, but over time, these very imperfections are embraced and reinterpreted as artistic tropes. In other words, we seek out the very limitations we once abhorred – from 8-bit pixel-art to the fuzz of point-and-shoot digital cameras and flip phones – often labelling them as more genuine in retrospect.
Teller’s long-running use of direct flash is a perfect case study for this inversion of artistic value and authenticity. On-camera flash, dismissed as ‘artificial’ in the 1950s, is now a symbol of realness precisely due to its connotations with amateur cameras and their everyday operators. The blown-out exposure and Dutch angles of Teller’s photography mirror the candidness of Indie Sleaze party snapshots (or the teenage impulse to take pictures of your friends in a parking lot), suggesting an unfiltered, insider view of the elite class. But in a social media landscape cobbled together from hyper-constructed “Instagram moments” and faux careless “photo dumps,” it’s increasingly hard to pin down what actually makes a photo authentic anymore, especially when celebrities are involved.
As a young millennial, believe me when I say that in the early days of Instagram, celebrities really were just like us; the quality of their low-res selfies only imperceptibly different from the ones I used to take in my college dorm room. These early Instagram photos relied on the heavy use of filters – a digital nod to analogue nostalgia that added a veneer of authenticity to a platform still in its nascent stages. The filters we used then were not subtle, far from it, but the lack of subtlety was intentional. Instagram’s aim was to make it evident that the images on its platform had undergone alteration – from lousy smartphone image to an ‘Instagram’. But as smartphone cameras improved in quality, the need for filters to enhance or add character to images diminished. High-resolution cameras with better colour accuracy and low-light performance reduced the reliance on filters to ‘correct’ or stylise images. Today, the absence of filters (née #nofilter) is touted as a badge of authenticity, as is our batched-out style of posting. In reality, we’ve simply replaced visible filters that affect the patina of an image with hidden adjustments that address the perceived flaws of a photo’s subject instead.
Another technological elephant muddying the waters of authenticity in 2024 is the adoption of AI image generators. AI can easily produce imagery that is layered, colourful and densely complex – aligning with the pomp and drama of large-scale commercial shoots. But AI image generators are less adept at accurately rendering the subtleties and imperfections of everyday scenes. As such, Teller’s work, characterised by its stark realism and inclusion of banal motifs like power lines and parking metres, presents a style that AI struggles to emulate. Teller’s iPhone photos are a modern regurgitation of film photographers’ like Henri Cartier-Bresson’s insistence on showing the edges of his negatives. It’s a flex; there’s nowhere to hide.
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.
Elizabeth writes a regular column for It’s Nice That from her base on the East Coast of the US. Check back in every couple of weeks to read her latest thoughts on design trends and hot topics from the creative world.
About the Author
Elizabeth Goodspeed is It’s Nice That’s US editor-at-large, as well as an independent designer, art director, educator and writer. Working between New York and Providence, she's a devoted generalist, but specialises in idea-driven and historically inspired projects. She’s passionate about lesser-known design history, and regularly researches and writes about various archive and trend-oriented topics. She also publishes Casual Archivist, a design history focused newsletter.