A Modeling Rite of Passage, Unmasked

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LONDON — On a sidewalk slicked with rain, a young woman in an Audrey Hepburn T-shirt stands awkwardly beneath an umbrella. Against the same drab municipal backdrop, teenage twins in clingy sportswear lean in toward each other.

A scuffed door with the number 1 crudely affixed in tape is the frame for additional portraits of women variously dressed in outsize winter coats, puffer jackets and lacy camisoles. Some look casually bored, others amused, goofy.

These are among the 462 photographs from Juergen Teller’s “Go-Sees project, now on view in “Go-Sees, Bubenreuth Kids and a Fairytale About a King …at the Alison Jacques Gallery in London.

Lara, London, March 4, 1999.CreditJuergen Teller

A record of 12 months of go-sees — exercises particular to the fashion world, in which modeling agencies send women to photographers to be vetted for potential editorial shoots or ad campaigns (they are the equivalent of tryouts) — the pictures were originally published as a book in 1999.

But, shown alongside portraits of Edward Enninful, the newly installed editor in chief of British Vogue, and a series of irreverent photographs of and by first graders in Mr. Teller’s childhood town of Bubenreuth, Germany, they stand out with a new urgency. While it has been many months in the planning, the exhibit opens in the context of fresh debate about sexual harassment and the treatment of models in the fashion world.

In the portraits, each young woman poses as she sees fit: Some flirt, others make clumsy attempts at allure, one does ballet. Most simply look like kids standing on the sidewalk, more or less awkward, more or less vulnerable. There are fashion stars in the making, among them Shalom Harlow, Jade Parfitt and Devon Aoki.

The cover of Arena Homme Plus, winter spring 2017-2018, featuring the British Vogue editor Edward Enninful, photographed by Mr. Teller.CreditJuergen Teller

While they are all presented without commentary, the portraits make clear the oddness of the situation, and the questionable position the women were being placed in by their agencies: sent to the studio of a male photographer, to be assessed and judged on their physical allure.

“Some looked really fragile, anorexic, standing there in the middle of the road with their book in their hands,” Mr. Teller recalled, sitting in the kitchen of his London studio looking over the series some 20 years later. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe it, it’s insane.’” Others he remembers turning up with pushy, ambitious parents “shuffling these kids along wanting to sell them off — brutally speaking.”

Mr. Teller decided to begin his chronicle when, after making his name as a fashion photographer with editorials for The Face, iD and Vogue, his phone had begun ringing off the hook with modeling agencies imploring him to check out new talent and offering to send women over for him to see.

“I thought it was a weird idea — girls coming to see me as a man,” Mr. Teller said. Originally he and the stylist Venetia Scott, then his partner, would insist on visiting agency offices themselves to search through their books for “characters” to cast in his shoots.

Lori Fredrickson, London, March 23, 1999.CreditJuergen Teller

With growing acclaim came commissions to photograph the supermodels of the day, but by 1998 Mr. Teller didn’t like the work he was doing. “It was just for me, too commercial, too boring,” he said “It was not like what I wanted to do.” So he decided, instead of resisting the calls from the modeling agencies, he would instead ask them to send him “everyone, every person you have.”

Each woman that turned up on a go-see, he photographed within a few feet of his front door: “I wanted to do it for one year and see what happened. In a way that was my first conceptual project.”

There were quiet patches (Christmas, high summer) and days when as many as 30 women turned up. He and his assistant supplied tea and coffee, and spent “between five and 15 minutes” looking at their portfolios, then took a portrait on the doorstep, some inside, some out.

“When I was younger, I was only able to photograph people I liked, who I had an attraction to, who I admired,” Mr. Teller said. He couldn’t not photograph people he wasn’t interested in, he said, or who were jerks.

“I wanted to be able to photograph everyone,” he said. “This project helped me.”

Mr. Teller said that the only time he’s properly been star-struck was meeting Will Ferrell. But for a man who regularly submits himself to naked self-portraits in the most undignified positions, Mr. Teller is unexpectedly prey to performance anxiety. For his first fashion editorial, he said, he was “far too shy to photograph girls,” so instead asked to shoot men’s wear. When he met Linda Evangelista in New York, he was “so nervous I could hardly talk.

Children from Bubenreuth, Germany, Mr. Teller’s hometown.CreditJuergen Teller

Recently Mr. Teller photographed the Bayern Munich football club. He took his son on the trip to Germany so that he could meet his sports heroes, and recalls them both lying in their respective beds the night before unable to sleep: His son was wired with excitement, he was anxious over whether he’d get his shot.

As he prepares “Go-Sees, he is also starting work on a project with children affected by the devastating fire in the neighboring Grenfell Tower housing block.

Working with the 6-year-olds and 7-year-olds featured in “Bubenreuth Kids,” Mr. Teller invited them to photograph their own versions of his unconventional portraits. A little girl in a witch costume appears curled up in a wheelbarrow like Kate Moss; a boy in an anorak cowers beneath a workbench pretending to be Courtney Love; the whole class climbs inside paper carrier bags in homage to Victoria Beckham’s 2008 Marc Jacobs ad.

The earnestness of the children’s efforts is echoed in the “Go-Sees” series, for which, likewise, young people are pictured posing awkwardly as adults. Seen all together they are testament to the very different image culture of the late 1990s: Long before the days of camera phones and hyper-awareness of self-image, these young women are, for the most part, remarkably un-self-conscious.

As a result, the pictures read like a document of a moment, including the cars, the fashion, along with the casual, poorly safeguarded treatment of the models.

Just days before the opening of the exhibition, video footage surfaced of Mr. Teller asking the “Go-See” subjects questions about self-image and the fashion industry. One young woman said show castings for fashion week were “the most psychologically twisted, horrible thing ever.”

Another detailed a disturbing encounter with a photographer (not Mr. Teller). “Between every single shot he was trying to kiss me,” she recalled. “He’d come in when I was getting changed and tell me that he knew that I wanted to go to bed with him.”

How did Mr. Teller feel about what he had heard? “I was working it out myself,” he said. “I expressed it in the photographs.”

“Juergen Teller: Go-Sees, Bubenreuth Kids and a Fairytale About a King …” is on view from Nov. 24, 2017, to Jan. 13, 2018.

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