Juergen Teller dangles a cigarette from his lips as he reviews his bacchanalian celebration of Bayern Munich’s sixth straight Bundesliga title. Here he is in short shorts fleeing a shower of wheat beer, here drowning in Paulaner brew frothing like sea foam, here draped in a white towel looking like Moses or a Madonna.
The fashion photographer’s newest exhibition, Trembling on the Sofa, is his paean to football, or rather, to watching football: a personal exhibition of dreams fulfilled and dashed, of father-son bonding and family tragedy, and of the banality of sitting on one’s couch in west London and screaming at footballers – usually his German countrymen, toiling thousands of miles away.
“I just wanted to show the absurdity of it all,” he says, strolling through Garage in Moscow’s Gorky Park, the contemporary exhibition space opened by Dasha Zhukova (with whom Teller is friends) and her ex-husband and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich. Teller is wearing a grey Garage sweatshirt and fiddles with a white Bic lighter, but nonetheless powers through a gallery walkthrough and interview without a smoke break.
Football, he says, has “almost got this kind of religiosity”. Then he pauses, peering from just inches away at his beer-soaked forehead. “Or like something from a horror movie.”
As a photographer of fashion and celebrity, Teller has courted controversy for the kinds of unglamorous portrayals of sexuality made daring by their candour and the subjects’ vulnerability. His nude portraits of Vivienne Westwood, then aged 71, and a smoking Kristen McMenamy wearing a lipstick heart and the word Versace scrawled on her chest, were sensations. So was a 2015 series of portraits called Kanye, Juergen & Kim, where Teller shot Kim Kardashian in undergarments against a pile of dirt in the French countryside, coaxing her famously image-conscious husband Kanye West into a bizarre series of family portraits.
When it comes to football, Teller’s great love since childhood, he has photos of himself in bed with Pele; and portraits of Paul Pogba, and Franz Beckenbauer; and of course there are those 1998 Vogue photographs of a young David Beckham, then a Manchester United star, cuddling on the floor with pregnant fiancee Victoria (Teller photographed her a decade later inside a Marc Jacobs bag).
And yet, none of those photographs are here. The Garage exhibition is intentionally stripped of the star power that Teller could easily deploy. Instead, he opts for a starkly personal dive into the emotions of the day-to-day football fan, the kind of thing “any idiot sitting on the sofa, 88th minute, one-nil down, five minutes extra time” can relate to. After all, he says, he’s one of them.
Without a doubt, the most striking photograph in this exhibition is one of Teller himself, the reason this exhibition is closed to children under Russia’s fairly stringent laws on adult content. In a black-and-white image blown up to the size of a gallery wall, Teller stands, stark naked, manhood and gut hanging out, chugging a beer. One leg is lifted, resting on a football.
Teller is standing on the grave of his father, who struggled with alcoholism and killed himself in 1988. “My dad didn’t like football and we didn’t watch it together,” Teller says, his voice still calm and even. “I got the sport side from my mother. And then my dad became kind of jealous of how close I became with my mother. And then he killed himself in ’88. And for me it’s kind of where I try to be closer to my dad. In later years, I also started to have problems with alcohol and cigarettes, and it was this kind of metaphor.”
Teller remains close to his mother, who lives in the same town in Bavaria where he grew up and captained his local football team against other villages. She’s an avid fan of her son’s work, and even helped arrange a partnership with primary school children from a nearby village to try their hand at portraiture a la Teller. A video installation directly opposing the nude photo echoes with children’s voices singing the Bayern Munich anthem, Stern des Südens, while standing in a Bavarian wood.
When it came to the photograph by his father’s grave, however, Teller’s mother was strongly opposed. “My mum didn’t like this photograph at all,” Teller said looking up at himself. “She was very against it.”
Perhaps because of his past, Teller now uses football as a way to bond with his son, Ed, and he puts the relationship front and centre. The exhibition begins with Ed cheering on Germany to a 1-0 victory over Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final, hugging his father, both dad and lad growing more ecstatic as the clock-hands tick toward victory.
“He’s a good model,” Teller says. “I always have to ask if I can shoot him. Sometimes he says no and sometimes he says yes. And when he says yes, he’s completely there. He was completely immersed [in the match].”
It isn’t the first time Teller has pulled this stunt. A television in the gallery plays a home video of Teller smoking, drinking, and swearing at the television to Germany’s 2002 World Cup final loss to Brazil 2-0 in what this paper’s critic called an “an extraordinary portrait of volatile masculinity”.
“It was always something nice I had over my English friends,” said Teller, who abruptly moved to London in his early 20s, a move that he has called the most daring in his life. “They’ve never gotten to experience being in a World Cup final and I’ve already seen it so many times.” He thought: “I need to document this.”
In the 2012 Champions League final, Teller had two assistants photograph his and Ed’s heartbreak as Bayern Munich went down on penalties to Abramovich’s Chelsea.
“Ed, it’s a win-win,” he recalled telling his son. “Either we win, and that’s great, or we can sell this album of us losing to Dasha. And she bought it for a lot of money,” he says laughing. Zhukova later gave the album to her husband, Abramovich, as a gift.
The show includes playful technological flourishes, like televisions prepped to play livestreams of Teller at home watching Germany’s group stage matches (“maybe we’ll get Ed and some supermodels on screen”), and televisions set up for the knockout stages that will just play static if Germany are eliminated.
This is Teller’s third time working in Russia, following a tour with Blur (“all I remember was the traffic”) and a 2011 exhibition of his portraits for Zeit magazine, includingthe transgender model Andreja Pejic, at Moscow’s Multimedia Art Museum.
He wants Ed to come out and see the exhibition but is ambivalent about attending the matches with him. “I thought it’s maybe a bit too unpredictable, you don’t know how dangerous it’s going to be,” Teller said. “In the English press, it’s all about the Russian hooligans. And I thought: do I bring a kid with me?”
Around the corner are his portraits of players from Bayern Munich, the team Teller has idolised since he was young, showing their tattoos and and mugging in slim-cut suits during a media appearance.
There are none of the former Bayern coach Pep Guardiola, whom Teller once called his “man crush” and unsuccessfully chased for a one-on-one portrait during a team trip to China. The Bayern Munich players, he said, were “always in some form of protection. When you really are with them they’re all really nice. But it’s the whole thing around it,” he says, lamenting the press days that move players from station to station, “like a machine”.
“It’s completely different from photographing anything else,” Teller adds. “They don’t want to do it. But they have to do it.” He finally gets his cigarette and we’re running out of time. I ask him about his most memorable experience meeting a footballer. I was in bed with Pele holding a football, Teller says, “but we weren’t naked or anything.”
He elaborates on the story. In the early 2000s, Teller was going through a breakup with his girlfriend, art dealer Sadie Coles. “We had an affair together, and she thought, ‘Oh let’s just be friends’,” Teller recalls. They hadn’t spoken for seven weeks.
Teller asked Pele if he could put in a good word. “Sure!” the legendary footballer replied and called Coles, reaching her in an aeroplane taxiing on a runway in Chicago. “Pele charmed her for 20 minutes, asking about her favourite players, then about Brazil, and art,” Teller laughs. “And then he got me on the phone with her.”
The couple changed their plans to meet up in Zurich. “Then we got married.”