Juergen Teller on self-portraits and licking Charlotte Rampling's ear
German photographer turned the camera on himself because the vanity of fashion photography was draining
Photographer Juergen Teller is in Hong Kong for the first time for the opening of an exhibition with Chinese artist Xiang Jing.
48 HOURS: Why do you think the images of fine-dining dishes you took in Tuscany's Hotel Il Pellicano in 2010 are better than nudes in exploring the theme of desire in your group show with Chinese artist Xiang Jing at Lehmann Maupin?
JUERGEN TELLER: Originally, we were planning to show all nudes like Vivienne Westwood's but then I looked more closely at Xiang Jing's sculptures, somehow I felt they didn't work. So I wanted to have something more abstract and food is always a desire. And then in a different way, they remind me of these shiny picture cards of cheap Chinese takeaway food. That's quite fitting in a way. And I quite enjoy the abstractness of it. I've never been to China. It's my first time in Hong Kong and it's all very exotic and new for me. So are her sculptures.
What prompted you to use a digital camera for the first time in that series? I shot the whole thing with an analogue camera, but I felt I couldn't get close enough to the work so I chose a digital camera. I've only been using digital cameras for the past couple of years. I used to always photograph with a Contax camera — this [pointing at the Vivienne Westwood No 1 London 2009] is photographed with an analogue camera — but I prefer digital now because it's reliable and faster. The quality is extremely good and, ultimately, it's a lot cheaper. And you can edit the images while you're travelling.
But isn't the rawness the thing that many love about your work? Well the original file of digital is more brutal. It's a lot sharper. Analogue is a lot more forgiving.
Which has been your most memorable shoot so far? I liked doing this self-portrait project with Charlotte Rampling — it started off as an advertising campaign with Marc Jacobs — and going on holiday in Japan with my family when my son was seven months old.
What were you thinking when you were cuddling Rampling, licking her ear and chewing her feet? She's such an icon in the art house movie industry and such a desired, however, unreachable woman. The concept was basically "I am with her and I have her". And I'm the one who kisses her and touches her breasts. It's a dream for many men to be there, but it's impossible. And for me it was possible. I wanted to do something which I have never seen before. I wanted to go on an adventure and we had an adventure.
What is the significance of self-portraits to you? When I became famous for doing fashion photography, I felt a bit tired of doing that. I felt emotionally drained by the vanity. I just thought I might as well just photograph myself. It is incredibly liberating. There's nobody to tell me I can't show this double chin. I was able to push the limit to my own pleasing. I wanted to literally see how it looks like and feels to be photographed by me, the sense of knowing when a good picture is happening, and that helps me to photograph other people. And it helps me also when other people are looking at my self-portraits — they enter into a totally different level of understanding of who I am and what I want to achieve within my work.
How did you discover your love for photography? I used to be a bow maker for violins but a year into my apprenticeship I started having asthma attacks from the wood dust. The doctor said I needed better quality air and I went with my cousin on holiday and he had a camera. I was 18 at the time and when I looked through the camera lens I felt that was the first time I actually looked at things and noticed things. That's when I thought I wanted to be a photographer.
If you could only take one image with you to your grave, what would it be? I'd take two pictures: one of my son in the bathtub smiling and the other of my daughter in a small pond near our holiday house in Suffolk.
Juergen Teller and Xiang Jing, Lehmann Maupin, 407 Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central. Until June 27