The abandoned resorts by California’s Salton Sea. A derelict asylum in the North of England. The ghost airport in Athens, Greece. It’s the forgotten and neglected places that seem to attract photographer and director Alex Telfer. Steeped in authenticity, his work captures emotion in fine detail, from paint flaking off a wall to wisps of mist rising above a Scottish loch.
It’s a dedication that has been with Telfer since he first picked up a camera in any serious way back in 1987. Originally from the tiny village of Dipton, County Durham, in North East England, he did his foundation year in art at the technical college in nearby Consett, a town known for its massive steel foundry, which was closed by the Thatcher government in 1980. The community around him had the highest unemployment rate in the country, and the young Alex Telfer felt driven to document the landscape and its people.
Now an internationally renowned photographer working for some of the biggest brands, creative agencies and publications in the world, he still returns to the down-and-out towns of the North East—and elsewhere—to capture the realities of its postindustrial decline.
“I always remember the stories as well,” he says, leaning in, an intense look on his face. “As I was wandering around Consett with a camera, I would get to talking with [people], and of course they’d all worked at the steelworks. You’d hear these stories—and these were the days before health and safety and all of that. They’d be working with these massive vats of molten steel, and the amount of accidents that would happen where guys would slip and fall in! I never witnessed this personally, but it’s things like this that live with you.”
Inspired by the legendary photojournalist Don McCullin, who also shot Consett in the 1980s, Telfer went to art school in Newcastle, a midsize city farther north, and continued developing his own trademark filmic style, thriving on emotional nuance and a sense of heightened realism.
“It was very much that notion of photographing local people from Consett. Asking politely if I could take their photograph in a scene that was pretty run-down,” says Telfer. “That’s actually stayed with me. I think the subject matter has become less austere than an abandoned steelworks, but the essence of it isn’t dissimilar.”
Telfer’s work is a far cry from the glossy, lifestyle approach that tends to dominate in the world of advertising. He has become the photographer that creative directors turn to when they want to generate an authentic mood—something to engage the viewer in more subtle ways. And while a sense of solitude often permeates his personal work, he is equally adept at capturing warm, joyful and life-affirming moments.
For example, when Wieden+Kennedy London was creating butter brand Lurpak’s campaign celebrating home cooking, the agency struggled with ways of bringing a true sense of life to cooks and their dishes. The agency toyed with computer-generated imagery, but the artwork just didn’t hit the right notes. When offered the brief, Telfer knew exactly what to do. “I went away and did a test shot with a very wide-angle lens so I could get in really close to the action. I shot through a pane of heat-resistant glass, and we were getting debris stuck to the glass, so it looked like it was physically on the lens,” he says.
His models tossed hot mushrooms in the air, flipped sizzling steaks and flung chocolate sauce over cakes while he snapped. The thrill of cooking and every drop of buttery succulence are there in the image. Not only was the client bowled over, but also, Telfer was named the International Photography Awards’ International Photographer of the Year and Advertising Photographer of the Year in 2017, and his images won the 2017 AOP Awards’ Commissioned Advertising Series Best in Category.
Whether he’s photographing an Audi zooming through a moonlit Irish valley for an advertising campaign or a highway drifting through snowscapes in Iceland for a personal series, Telfer is all about immersive atmosphere and granular detail. He will light internal scenes from outside through the windows, giving shots greater volume. In the studio, he often floods his sets with light in order to capture every pore, wrinkle and follicle, the weave of a piece of clothing, the depth of his subject’s eyes. It helps when you have a top-end 100-megapixel Phase One camera, but without Telfer’s meticulous planning, the beauty and imperfections wouldn’t be there to see—and feel—in every shot.
The visual language he has crafted over the last 30 years is reflected in his workspace. Often, photographic studios are located in industrial parks on the fringes of a city—lots of space, little character. In contrast, Telfer’s studio is in the heart of Newcastle’s Byker Wall district. Originally a Presbyterian church, it had been deconsecrated by the time he bought it in 2003, but still had its stained glass windows, pews, pulpit, mezzanine, and amphitheater-like worship area—all in a dilapidated state.
“When I first came inside the building, I said, ‘Wow, this could be amazing,’” recalls Telfer. “You felt this feeling of seclusion, like it was a sanctuary.”
Carefully, he renovated the building. The five-bedroom annex where the minister once lived with his family has been modernized to provide office space for Telfer and his team, which includes his assistants, Peter Turner and Michael Walker; digital retoucher Jon Lloyd; and stylist and casting director Sharon Younger. His wife, Helen, works there too, as a partner in the business and company secretary. “She has been with me from the beginning, encouraging me and pushing me on since we both went to Consett College,” says Telfer.
Most of the pews are gone, but a few were left around the edges as a reminder of the past. The original pitched pine floor has been restored, and the pulpit is now a huge lightbox. The nave, where the congregation once rose in song, has become an expansive studio space where Telfer positions his lights, flashes and reflective screens, building an entire set if a shoot requires it.
It’s a big building, and Telfer isn’t keeping it to himself. Almost in response to the economic decline documented in his personal work, he has turned sections of the building into smaller studios where like-minded creatives can work. “There’s a children’s casting agency, a designer who makes light installations and a film production company who do really cool, credible British dramas,” says Telfer.
Three of the units are occupied by the East Wing, a recording studio specializing in music for television and computer games. Founder Rich McCoull often collaborates with Telfer on his motion projects, providing the soundtracks. “I’ve been here nearly seven years,” says McCoull. “What’s amazing is the level everyone’s working at considering we’re in the Byker Wall. The level of work that’s coming out of this building is bizarre for its location.”
Like many British creatives, the studios’ occupants are sensitive to the country’s London bias—something Telfer seems keen to break down. After graduating from art school in Newcastle, he himself went to London to work as a photographic assistant, thinking he had to be in the capital to succeed.
After eighteen months, he returned to start his own business in 1992, knowing that Newcastle was where he wanted to be. His realistic style became a hit with the advertising agencies that existed in the city at the time, and he helped them win a slew of creative awards. Telfer’s brand of photography spread to agencies across Northern England, to London, Paris, New York and beyond, and within a few years, the internet made it easier for him to reach a global market. In 2009, he won Campaign magazine’s Photographer of the Year award, and he’s been at the top of his game for the last decade.
His unique studio space anchors his success. “Since I bought the church, where I get my work from has massively changed. My work has developed, and I’ve become far more international; however, keeping this place has become an inherent part of my brand. I’m kind of known as the photographer from North East England who has this church as a studio,” he says.
You simply can’t ask Alex Telfer what he’d like to shoot next or what his favorite shot is. He’s a workaholic, always focused on making his next job a creative masterpiece. Not many photographers cover the range of subjects that he does, either, with portraits, still life, landscapes and motion work all feeding into his editorial, advertising and personal projects.
The next phase is the fine art side of his business, which he is actively developing. Any spare time he has is devoted to personal work. Similar to the way he photographed Consett back in the 1980s, he’s now shooting in the port of Blyth, another North East town in slow decline. It’s one of several projects he has on the bubble.
“I’ve got another project that I’m just in the very early throes of organizing,” he adds. “It’s this town near Antwerp in Belgium, which is basically abandoned—in its entirety. So there’s an abandoned school, the main street is abandoned, the houses are abandoned. It’s a recurring theme in my work. There’s the isolation, but there’s always a connection to the human element and interesting stories to tell.” ca