Alex Teltevskiy: A Filmmaker’s Take on Analog Photography

All images by Alex Teltevskiy. Used with permission.

Alex Teltevskiy is a photographer whose mind works with a bit of eccentricity. He loves photography and has loved film since starting in it. But then he went digital and fell back in love with film. He experiments with various films, looks and cameras. His passion is driven by a load of things, and like more film photographers should, he understands how to get the looks that suit his creative vision.

Alex submitted to be featured in our Analog zine, and I’m sharing his submission here. For more of Alex’s work, I strongly suggest checking his Instagram, Tumblr, Behance and Youtube page.

Hi Chris! My name is Alex Teltevskiy and I am an art director and photographer / filmmaker from Chicago, but I also dabble in all sorts of creative fields from illustration to writing. Been a longtime reader and fan of the website (thnx!).

I write a lot about things I’m passionate about (check out my photo blog for proof) so this text might get a bit long. I tried to answer all of your questions in order. If you are short on time and want to get down to the bullet point details – just scroll down to the TLDR section. Otherwise I hope you enjoy this letter, written with passion about our shared craft, from one film enthusiast to another.

Been doing photography for more than 10 years, having spanned quite a few genres – started out professionally with product and interior photography, did weddings, automotive photography, lifestyle and engagement shoots. Personally always shot street and travel. All this was digital.

Then at some point I got tired of the modern digital devaluing commoditization of photography where everybody demands a gazillion photos right there and then decided to focus on photography as an art and shoot almost exclusively on film. Make photography matter again to me, myself, personally. You know?

Film is not new to me – I started out in photography shooting film. Entirely self-taught. The internet and the streets fueled my unhealthy obsession for devouring everything I could get about this art form – its history, theory, practice. Inner workings and all. First camera was a Cavalier Five Thousand RTL with a non-working meter, bunch of light leaks and a 50mm. The usual outfit. A 60’s M42 SLR that was a knock-off of a Ricoh which itself was a knockoff of something else, but it did the trick. F/8 and be there and Sunny 16 – my two best friends of that time.

Time went on and someone snuck a Rebel into my hands. I ditched film and went full-blown digital. But as the years went on and my shelves racked up more and more terabytes of useless zeros and ones (i.e. digital photos), I still kept coming back to the grainy mess that were my early film photos. Call it nostalgia, dreaming, whatever. I call it my Rosebud (love Kane). Then, I just said stop. Ran out and got myself a cheap Canon EOS film SLR so that I can use my existing glass. Got a couple of rolls of Superia 400 from the corner Walgreens. Went downtown and put my phone on DnD for half a day. The sun was setting and I was watching the frame counter dance. In the moment. Not chimping. Leaving things up to chance, letting life do its thing instead of engineering fake plastic imagery. God, I LOVE this. I forgot just how much personal freedom I lost when I switched to digital.

“The internet and the streets fueled my unhealthy obsession for devouring everything I could get about this art form – its history, theory, practice. Inner workings and all.”

Since then I’ve amassed quite a collection of gear. Film gear is cheap and has more than a century’s worth of unique items to choose from, each with its own character and personality. We’re not just talking about the eternal and utterly useless pixel-peeping “Canon has better skin tones” or “Nikon has a greenish cast” BS. We’re talking about equipment that completely transforms the way you shoot and the photos you take depending on what you pick up. Araki said that “if you want to take different photos, just pick up a different camera”. Couldn’t be more true.

And there’s just so many more ways in which film is different to digital. I’m not just talking about the organic color science or near-unlimited highlight retention and deep dynamic range, but one overlooked benefit of true medium format cameras (and larger) is that you get insane perspective compression and wider field of view the larger you go. Things start looking like a painting. The image looks natural – true to real life. Distortion is minimized and things at the edge of the frame don’t seem like they’re being sucked by Jupiter’s gravitational pull. You really STEP INTO a picture taken on a medium or large format film camera. It feels like an accurate depiction of life, almost as seen by human eyes. Where is that with digital? Where is a digital 8×10, or a 4×5? Heck, after all these years of the so-called digital revolution we don’t even have a digital 6×6, instead having to be content with tops a mere 645 – only a slight bump up from a full frame 35mm (IMHO).

My list of current film gear is as follows (listing only bodies since glass alone would take me half a day to list):

Minolta SR-T 202
Nikon FE
Nikonos V
Canon EOS Rebel T2
Canon EOS 1V
Nishika N9000
Zenit-B
Vivitar 220/SL
Polaroid Impulse AF
Fujifilm Instax Mini 90
Olympus Epic Stylus
Olympus Epic Zoom 80
Olympus Pen-FV
Voigtlander Bessa R3M
Pentax 67
Packfilm back for P67
Mamiya 6 MF
135 adapter for Mamiya 6 MF
Bronica SQ-Ai (one for me, one for my GF)
MPP Micro Technical Camera 4×5
Pretty sure I’m forgetting something…
Leica CL and GW690III are up next for adoption. Maybe throw an original Oly XA into the mix.

As far as films go, started shooting Fujifilm since that’s what I could scavenge at the local pharmacy, but since then have switched almost exclusively to Kodak. I scan all my own photos and the Fujifilm C41 is an absolute nightmare to balance right to achieve the look I’m going for. Kodak Ektar is an absolute blast, Portra best for when I’m moody, Cinestill for Blade Runner and HP5 for BW (sorry, Tri-X). Delta 100 for fine art BW. Provia 100 for any time I need slide. Velvia is overkill for my tastes and we don’t have that many beautiful landscapes here in the Midwest (cough, cough, middle of nowhere, cough). Kodak Gold 200 and Ultramax 400 for when I need a cheapie. Delta 3200 and Natura 1600 for ghost surveillance. And I wish, oh I wish to some day get my hands on T64 and Aerochrome. Oh, also can’t wait for the revived Ektachrome (yay)! If it’s BW I develop myself, also looking into C41 and E6 home development as well. Darkroom printing? In the next 2-3 years would be realistic.

My creative vision has always been deeply influenced by the country I was born in (Russia) and the country I dream tirelessly about (Japan). I was born in Moscow and moved a lot back and forth between Moscow and Chicago a lot when I was younger. But it was ultimately Moscow, with its grime and grit, urban decay and seas of concrete that forever shaped my eye’s natural tendency to focus on all the man-made and nature-shaped shapes, lines and patterns that are found in abundance in large urban centers, existing in equilibrium and transforming every day to suit one new revolution (in design, technology, society) after another. Most sane people dislike urban decay, whereas my fantasy thrives in it. Every forgotten and crack-ridden nook and cranny is a still life, just waiting for the perfect perspective and the right light…

Japan has influenced me greatly in more ways than I could ever hope to recount in a single paragraph, but suffice to say that every art needs needs guidance and aesthetic to know when there’s too much or too little. There needs to be just the right amount of objects in a photo. Just the right scale. Just the right angle. Just the right time. And just the right light. Now, I know this sounds a lot like the Decisive Moment, but what the Japanese bring into this equation for me is love for all things ordinary and mundane, the ability to derive pleasure from the simplest of things and the profound sense of being alive and in the moment. It’s a zen thing. Not to mention that my longstanding infatuation with the orient infused me with an unconditional love for travel and all things exotic.

So there you have it. Alex the photographer, the film lover, the human being. There is so much more that I would love to talk about, but I’ll leave that for a later encounter. Thank you for your time and I hope that you enjoy my photos.

TLDR

Why did you get into photography?

To tell stories and express ideas, moods and dreams in visual form. To make people feel and think. And to have fun while doing it – a camera is a passport to exploration and communication. And I guess I’m just geeky at heart – I love to hold and use heavy metal black boxes with all sorts of buttons, switches and dials. Harkens back to my hyperactive childhood imagination.

What photographers are your biggest influences?

Michael Wolf
Andreas Gursky
Joel Sternfeld
Stephen Shore
Berne & Hilla Becher
Pretty much anybody from the New Topographics
Todd Hido
Sinziana Velicescu
Patrick Joust

How long have you been shooting?

Over 10 years. Lost count – time flies when you’re having fun, right?

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

It is an uncompromising obsession of mine. A zen-like process that is highly tactile, intellectually stimulating and always heart-warming. A passport to explore the vast world around me and a ticket into the stories of other people’s lives. A way to feel and tell stories to make other people feel. And besides – it runs in the family. The earliest photo I have of my dad is him, a little tyke no more than a couple months old, laying down and clutching a trophy German WWII-era Contax in his tiny paws.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

I feel that I sometimes cross from one camp into another, depending on the subject matter. Most of the time I am in Creator Mode. Seek out a subject, feel it, frame it, click it – making sure that there is nothing extra in the frame that would get in the way of the story. I like to create photo pieces that deal with abstract feelings and ideas that are layered to communicate an idea. That’s the reason why my compositions are often sparse and minimalist. Other times though life presents moments that I just need to capture, often on a spur-of-the-moment. Then I switch to photojourno mode and just try to get the angle and the moment, documenting the event. Most of my photos are more methodical though.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images?

For me this is a two-part process. Most of the time I feel the photos rather than think them through. The way the sun drapes rays onto my girlfriend’s face in the diner, or the way a rain cloud blocks out a vibrant day and tints the world green. Or the way a yellow signpost is radiating its color on a sunny day, bathing everything around it in warm and happy photons. Subtle curve of the eyebrow. A hazy glow of light. All these subtleties my mind goes crazy over. And after it’s done going crazy over these things the second part of the process kicks in. The graphic designer and art director in me start dictating angles and compositions, converging lines and repeating patterns. Contrast, color, shape and size – the whole 9 graphic yards. That’s why a lot of my photos are taken at eye level with an even, level horizon, rarely tilting up or down – I like to keep my narrative under control and neatly organized.

Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically?

There’s not much more to say about the mental part of the process apart from the insights listed above, but as far as mechanical goes… The camera I shoot dictates the mechanics and style of shooting 100%. I like to think of buying a different type of camera as a gateway to doing new different types of photos. The point and shoot cameras are for grungy no care in the world snapshots a-la Terry Richardson. The Pentax 67 is a methodical portrait making machine with exact control of framing. The Mamiya 6 is the ultimate 120 travel camera – compact, sharp as heck and handhold able up to 1/8 second (gotta love that leaf shutter). The Bronica is pure artsy waist-level-toting square-photo-making ready-for-instagram machinery. Bessa for Leica-esque street and travel and Pen for the ultimate in casual snapshotting. The 35mm SLRs are the least interesting of the bunch, used as beaters to pass around friends and family to learn to shoot film, expect the 1V, which I use as a testbed to stretch the limits of film quality since it uses all my modern EOS EF glass. I refrigerate my film and CLA all my cameras, preferring natural light over strobes, using sticks only when doing long exposure shots.

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

Was actually planning on making a video about this for my youtube channel (I have one for camera reviews and travel videos), since this is a science all in it by itself. It’s a myth that film doesn’t require post-processing. My typical film shots require significantly more time because I scan, convert and adjust all the negatives myself, and, in the case of BW film, develop it myself as well. I gave up on having labs do all this work for me because out of the 6+ I’ve tried in and around my area, nobody seems to get even the simplest of nuances about scanning film, such as the difference between a Fuji look and a Portra look. All they do is shove the film in an outdated Noritsu or Frontier, press a couple of buttons and burn mediocre scans onto a CD. They don’t even select the proper conversion profile, which is why all my Kodak neg conversions look like they were shot on Fuji instead. And the way these machines process the shots make all of them look like slide film with crazy curve adjustment, unrealistic contrast and over-the-top saturation. Ugh. Had to shell out for a V800 and a Primefilm XA for LF/MF and 135 scans. Vuescan for scanning (I loathe and despise Silverfast with all my heart). ColorNeg + Photoshop for conversion. Lightroom for cataloging and final tweaks. Steep learning curve, but as close to a digital darkroom as I’ll get for the time being. Develop BW in Paterson tanks using standard techniques, nothing fancy like stand development or anything like that. Prefer HC-110 and anything else that can expedite the process. Develop 4×5 in Mod 54.

What makes you want to shoot film over digital at any given time?

I could write a book about this with reasons ranging the widest gamut from scientific to purely emotional, but in short, it’s a completely different way of approaching photography. It’s slower, more methodical, more intimate, more permanent, more enjoyable and above all else – more meaningful on a personal level. It forces a lot more out of the photographer, trains and nurtures his or her eye, vision and technique much quicker than digital could ever hope to. And it’s just plain more fun. End of story.