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The naked eye: Juergen Teller on Robert Mapplethorpe

It’s a bright autumn morning, and the German-born photographer Juergen Teller is finishing a chef-prepared lunch in the airy kitchen that adjoins his studio. Situated on a quiet suburban street in North Kensington, west London, the studio has been Teller’s base for the past six months after nearly two years of architectural renovation. The space, with its spare concrete planes, Japanese-style walled gardens, temperature-controlled storeroom and vast glass walls, is a stunning testimony to his professional success. “Louis Vuitton paid for this,” he says of the studio on a quick tour of its storeys. He is referring to work he has undertaken in recent years, shooting campaigns, editorial and art books for the luxury house. He is only partially joking about its remunerative perks.

Having arrived in London, in 1986, as a 19-year-old student escaping German military service, Teller’s unflinching, candid, milky-toned images have now hung around us for nearly 30 years. The photographer is a rare phenomenon, as comfortable shooting advertising campaigns for big luxury brands as he is doing celebrity portraiture or working on art projects in the Bavarian forests around his childhood home. His work is hard to categorise: he fills billboards, fashion magazines and gallery spaces alike.

He is unusual, too; in spite of such a diverse portfolio, his work is always visually distinct — no matter what the context, a Juergen Teller picture remains resolutely his. “My pictures can only be made by me,” is an oft-used phrase of his.

We were meeting, however, not to discuss his pictures but those of Robert Mapplethorpe, the American photographer who died of an Aids-related illness in 1989 and is similarly celebrated for an unflinching eye and genre fluidity. Born in New York in 1946, Mapplethorpe’s short career also covered fashion, portraiture and art and he is today recognised as one of the 20th century’s most influential artists: famed especially for his celebrity portraits, flower prints and nudes. Now, the two artists have been brought together for Teller on Mapplethorpe, an exhibition curated by Teller, at the invitation of the gallerist Alison Jacques, which will open around the time of what would have been Mapplethorpe’s 70th birthday. The show will illuminate Mapplethorpe’s archive and draw on the artists’ commonalities.

For Jacques, who has represented the Mapplethorpe estate for the past 17 years, the creative pairing was elementary. “It’s the most incredibly difficult thing to find a distinctive vocabulary within the medium of photography and that’s why I selected Juergen as an artist to curate this show,” says the gallerist, who is visiting the studio to check on the exhibition in progress. “There wasn’t anyone else that I was going to invite to put this on. It was so clear that it was the right fit.”

It’s also a commercially intelligent coupling. While Teller will help shed light on the photographer’s lesser-known works in what is already a highly collectable market — a recent Christie’s sale saw Mapplethorpe’s “Flag” (1987) fetch $487,500 — the association will no doubt add a little extra lustre to both of their names.

Raw, uncompromising, provocative, naughty — it’s not hard to find their shared characteristics. Both were handsome youths who negotiated the counterculture through personal connections and alliances that define their careers; both traverse the worlds of fashion and art with ease; and both explore the ideas of masculinity, sexuality and identity with a candour some find shocking. Few oeuvres feature quite as many penis prints as theirs. But Teller maintains he never sets out to shock. “Not at all.” Neither does he think that Mapplethorpe did. “I think he just did what he wanted to do, explore his life,” says Teller, his German accent undimmed even after decades of expatriation. “I’m purely interested in the power of his will to do these things and go on adventures,” he continues. “I go on similar adventures. And I like to go to places which are uncomfortable or beautiful or romantic, whatever it is, and so did he. And that’s why I like his work so much because it could only be done by him. And they might be odd and strange and unpleasing but that’s how the world is.”

Teller first became aware of Mapplethorpe’s work by studying Patti Smith’s album sleeves. Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white portrait of Smith wearing a white Salvation Army shirt and black jacket slung over her shoulder, in a pose of “Baudelaire and Sinatra” according to the singer, was used on her 1975 album, Horses, and has since become as close to pop iconography as those pictures of James Dean in the rain or Marilyn Monroe standing astride a subway vent.

“I came across him unknowingly,” Teller explains. “Because I liked Patti Smith’s music very much. And I kept on staring at these photographs and the power of them, and I felt there was something there. It wasn’t just the music and how Patti looked, but the whole thing seemed to create a universe in my little room in Germany. That’s what I was interested in.”

Inspired to explore this new universe, Teller came to London before finishing his photography degree, and an early fascination soon became a bigger passion. Though Mapplethorpe was not hugely fashionable in the early 1990s, Teller bought two prints: “Man in Polyester Suit” (a 1980 portrait of the artist’s lover Milton Moore, with his penis exposed, a print of which sold at Sotheby’s last year for $478,000) and another, depicting a devil with a pitchfork — and a penis — that will feature in the show. “I just felt the sheer force of power of these photographs,” says Teller. “And their pure intention. I always admired his honesty and his brutalism. It felt completely honest with what he was doing and what he was into.”

Despite the controversial subject matter associated with so much of Mapplethorpe’s work — black male nudes, gay sex and giant phallic flowers — many of the images in Teller’s show are actually based on gentler themes. “I didn’t want to just do a show of the heavy sexuality,” he explains. “And I didn’t want to just do celebrity portraits, which we’ve all seen before. I wanted to try to create a show which was new.”

People who associate Mapplethorpe’s work with a cool, classical, sometimes cold composition might be pleased to discover Teller’s inclusion of the many Polaroid prints Mapplethorpe made between 1970-75 (“before he got a proper camera”, says Jacques), when he was still experimenting with the medium: cute pictures of kittens and sculptures and tabletops. Teller was drawn to the Polaroids because he found them “incredibly romantic, beautiful and moving. That was my intention, not to just have this hard stuff of his but something soft as well.”

Neither are there many self-portraits. “I have one in there that I haven’t seen before,” says Teller of a charming picture of the artist looking entirely unposed by a pool. But the other more famous pictures are in short supply. Rather than the handsome figure of popular culture, with his motorcycle leathers and Teddy-boy quiff, Teller’s curation finds Mapplethorpe as more of an unknown quantity: the man behind the myth.  

“People know a lot about Mapplethorpe,” explains Teller. “He had this big retrospective in America, and there have been books and the HBO documentary . . . so I had to find an angle. I didn’t want to just show the obvious work, that would be a boring show.” Jacques agrees: “Of all the images that Juergen has selected, I don’t think there’s a single one that is an iconic image. In every case he’s picked the lesser-known one.”

Perhaps inevitably for a man whose career has charted a near-obsessive self-absorption, Teller has ultimately drawn on the things that reflect his own interests. Teller makes most things personal, and this show is no different. “There’s a couple of what I would consider fashion pictures he’s done, because that is where I come from to a certain extent, and then there’s a couple of children’s pictures in it, because I photograph my child and so on and so on,” he says. He has also featured some of the friends and subjects with whom they both have an association — the art curator Clarissa Dalrymple and Helen Marden, wife of the American artist Brice Marden.

One of Teller’s favourite discoveries was a silver gelatin print, “Frogs” (1984), depicting a plate leaping with leopard-skinned amphibia. In recent months, Teller (which means “plate” in German) has built a huge body of work dedicated to his surname, printing past works on giant discs of tableware and inserting bits of crockery into lots of his frames (a recent series with Charlotte Rampling, a long-term collaborator, finds the 70-year-old actress lapping milk from a plate in Teller’s back garden). The frog-plate picture was especially serendipitous — “the moment where the nail hit the head”. Even better, he then found another, of a man stood on a stack of plates wearing a suit and shiny leather Oxford shoes. “You’re thinking, who the hell is photographing a plate?” says Teller. “There’s not that many people photographing a plate, in that kind of way. And it’s super-good.”

The frogs have since become the title image of the show, and Teller is now considering whether he will display some of his own printed plates in vitrines that will link the show’s themes more explicitly. In the meantime, he’s returned the artistic compliment: on a recent magazine shoot, the actor Jake Gyllenhaal turned up at Teller’s studio to find himself co-starring with dozens of frogs.

As for their differences, Teller is ambivalent. Mapplethorpe shot in black-and-white because it was more practical — and reliable — at the time, though Teller thinks he would have used more colour had he lived longer. He’s also unbothered by the fact Mapplethorpe typically portrayed his subject in a generous light, retouching pictures to flatter the skin and make them more attractive. Teller, by contrast, can be brutal: lines, eye shadows and paunches are all part of the package.

Teller says the differences were merely spurred by financial considerations — Mapplethorpe’s income was more dependent on private commissions than the huge commercial fees a photographer can command today — and their cultural point of view. “He was an American,” says Teller. “He was doing portraits in an environment in which he had to please a client.” Conversely, however, he thinks photographers have become more circumscribed by political correctness. “Society has moved backwards,” he says of the creative freedoms enjoyed by Mapplethorpe. And it’s true: we are no more inured to the shock of Mapplethorpe’s “Fist Fuck” pictures today than we were the first time around.

Teller’s admiration for Mapplethorpe remains undimmed. Finding new works, re-engaging with older ones and delving deeper into the Mapplethorpe archive has been an inspirational journey for the photographer. “I just got confronted with him again,” says Teller of his experience. “It was a way of looking at his work that was surprising and new.”

Mostly, though, he has enjoyed the chance to revel in the artist’s uncompromising view. “He pushed his work through how he wanted to do it, that’s for sure,” Teller concludes. “And he put himself and his life completely in the photograph. That wouldn’t be with many other people.” And then, because he can’t resist, he adds: “I think I do that too.”

Jo Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor

‘Teller on Mapplethorpe’ is at the Alison Jacques Gallery, London from November 18 to January 7 2017;