‘Being photographed by you is probably the most exposing.’

Photographs and layout by Juergen Teller
Creative partner Dovile Drizyte

Juergen Teller. - © System Magazine

Isamaya Ffrench first met photographer Juergen Teller backstage at a Vivienne Westwood show, now too long ago to remember which one. Over the years, they’ve worked on plenty of jobs together whether that’s for Westwood or for Riccardo Tisci when he was still at Burberry, but it wasn’t until she stepped in front of his camera, as part of this portfolio for System beauty, that she finally understood his power as an artist. ‘The whole day felt like a wild blur that I couldn’t really get a handle on, but it sort of didn’t matter,’ she says. ‘It was real, it was honest and it was me.’

Isamaya Ffrench: I have a funny relationship with make-up – maybe I stigmatise it. A lot of people think about make-up in a very commercial and superficial sense and it’s hard for me to feel connected to that. My relationship with make-up has always been one that’s been pursuing something entirely different; not just making people look good, which is primarily what make-up is there to do. I’ve always felt embarrassed about being a make-up artist. But the older I get, the more I rely on make-up for myself to look good, so I do understand the power it wields. It’s magic for a lot of people, it can allow them to become something other than who they are.

Juergen Teller: I had the same feeling about being a fashion photographer. Years ago, it was slightly embarrassing to do that. It’s not any - more. People always ask me: ‘What is beauty for you?’ Beauty can be anything. Beauty in a commercial sense just means money. I really enjoyed the day we spent together, I thought that was a beautiful moment.

Isamaya: It was! I’ve known your work for years and know it very well. But it’s only when you’re being photographed by Juergen Teller that you really feel the power of the process. It’s probably the most exposing, even though we were doing lots of silly dressing up with wigs. We were in my house so while there was an element of control, I also felt totally out of control. And as somebody who’s generally very in control of my image and the images I create, I really just had to let go.

Juergen: It’s a very beautiful, strange portfolio. You look so different and the same. I thought you were extremely photogenic. When we worked together for Vivienne Westwood, I got a sense of who you were. Doing things in a very light way. That doesn’t mean that it’s light, but it’s very fluid. And nothing is really so important. The whole thing is important, of course, but there’s an ease which I really enjoy, and a sense of having fun. Instead of being so hung up about it – it has to look like this, or just the hair has to look like that .

Isamaya: I think you could literally have been talking about yourself just then, because that’s exactly the way you work. I suppose that part of the way we work is to allow things to happen. To not be so controlling and to go with the flow. I knew that it wasn’t going to be super staged, that it would just be an unfolding of events and we’d just go where it takes us. There wasn’t this big set with lots of people buzzing around. There’s no one holding lights, no one doing the catering, there’s no production. It’s just you, a subject, and a phone. Can you reflect on that?

Juergen: If you use the phone in the right way, it’s an incredible, beautiful instrument. I just want to be very direct. When did you start working with Andreas [Kronthaler]?

Isamaya: Almost 10 years ago. It’s only now that I realise there’s no fucking point even opening a make-up mood board from them before the show. Because you go there and not only have they changed their mind, they can’t remember what was on the mood board. They don’t even like the mood board anymore. They basically go, ‘Look, just do whatever you want on the show.’ So that’s what I do. I used to get so stressed but now I feel confident enough in myself that they really like what I do, so I go with it.

Juergen: Organically it comes together. Whenever we take pictures, all of us together with Andreas and Vivienne before, I also used to be nervous. But then I thought: ‘This is going to work out, mix things up,’ and that’s how we get along. It’s actually very beautiful.

Isamaya: Definitely. So much of what they do is about individuals. It’s more character-based, and I think: what’s the point in doing a red lip on this girl in a test, when it’s going to look completely different on some other girl in the show?

Juergen: How many shows do you do?

Isamaya: It changes sort of seasonally, but I do all of the cities.

Juergen: I wasn’t quite aware that you’re on this sort of treadmill of things. Are you getting tired of it?

Isamaya: Not now that I have my brand. There was a moment before that, where I started to question things, but it has opened doors for collaborations. I do a lot of creative direction for people and for brands.

Juergen: Do you find it tiring to work with people?

Isamaya: Oh, God, yes. You’re constantly having to play to other people’s frequencies. If I could be on my own frequency, I would be listening to heavy metal music and painting quietly. But when you’re on a shoot, and you have anxious clients, you’ve got to match their frequency.

Juergen: Is there a formula in how you work with colour for your brand? Is it very structured, or do you go like, ‘Oh, I feel pink now.’

Isamaya: It’s all intuitive, really. That intuitiveness could tell me that we need three wild colours to launch, or it could say, ‘Why don’t we give them six very wearable colours now?’ Colour development takes a very long time, like shade matching, I’m literally in the lab sampling things going ‘point four more yellow’, and like, ‘bring the reds down and push the white.’ You’ve also got to think about different skin tones. Something might look incredible on you, but dreadful on me, because I have a yellow-based skin tone, and yours is pink-based. Then you’ve got all the different lights, which you definitely know about: we wear something in here and it looks incredible, then we go outside and it looks dreadful again. You’re constantly juggling the different factors that contribute to the colour.

Juergen: There’s so many shades, and for us as outsiders it’s like… just a fucking red.

Isamaya: Yeah, it’s not just a fucking red! No, totally. Trends do come into it, because if you think nude lipsticks, they were very popular in the 90s, and again a couple of years ago. So most of the time with make-up, you’ve got to design a year or two in advance.

Juergen: It takes so long.

Isamaya: I don’t know why it takes so long, but it does. And it’s hard because sometimes you think the rest of the world is going to quickly catch up and do it before yours even gets to come out, even though you thought about it two years ago. But that’s life, isn’t it?