Close-Up: Ambitious Geordie sets gold standard

Campaign Photo gold winner Alex Telfer is attracting the attention of top agencies.

Alex Telfer, who has just struck gold for the second successive year with the Most Powerful Image at the Campaign Photo awards, is a photographer whose prolific output matches his Action Man persona.

Ask him to name his own favourite image - whether it be the haunting and powerful picture of a child trapped in an old person's body that wowed the judges at last year's awards, or the tear-stained face of a man for a campaign highlighting the human cost of knife crime that won gold last week - and he's reluctant to commit himself.

"My roster of work is constantly changing, so my favourites will change from month to month," he explains. "I'm always moving on."

But ask him where he sees himself in five years' time and his response is unequivocal. "My ambition is to be up there with the best," he declares. "I feel I've a lot to offer the top ad agencies and I'm prepared to invest a lot of effort into making it happen."

At the age of 40, he certainly seems like a man in a hurry. Operating out of a former 19th-century church in rural Northumberland, Telfer has evolved a trademark style whose effect is based on the use of stark imagery and imaginative lighting.

Having first grabbed the attention of agencies in his North-East heartland, he now finds himself increasingly in demand by leading London shops, resulting in work for advertisers such as Nike, Sony Music, Land Rover and the BBC.

Indeed, he was heavily awarded at this year's Campaign Photo awards for both regional and national campaigns. Not only did Telfer scoop gold for the Most Powerful Image, but he was also recognised for his "travellers" work for Gallery Stock, "an airgun isn't a toy" shot for Safer Scotland, "great expectations" work for Prostap, and the "rugby player" image for Land Rover Freelander.

Despite his relentless drive for self-improvement, those who know him like his down-to-earth demeanour, which is reflected in his praise for those who have helped him on his way: namely, Mark Martin, the creative director of the Newcastle agency Different, who gave him his first big break; and Simon Mallinson, the managing director of Glasgow's Mallinson Television Productions, who gave him his entree into commercials directing two years ago. Telfer is now on MTP's directors' roster.

Martin remembers the first job he gave Telfer. It was for a local veterinary service, costing about £200 - and it made the D&AD Annual. "Even if you give him a straightforward brief, he always comes up with something special," Martin says.

Mallinson, meanwhile, describes Telfer as "a massive talent with an amazing work ethos who surrounds himself with good people and lets them get on with it".

The often gritty, urban look to Telfer's work is a by-product of his Geordie upbringing. Although born in a village eight miles outside Newcastle, where his parents ran the post office, much of his time was spent in the inner city snapping people as he saw them.

His obsession with documentary-style photography was matched by a passion for advertising. "I love the whole process from the moment I get the brief," he says.

An advertising photography course at Newcastle College was the springboard for his ambition, along with a growing realisation that his style, so strongly rooted in reality, could be "tweaked" to meet advertising's needs.

"I think my work suits advertising because of its immediacy," he says. "When you see it, you know right away what it's aiming to do."

Tiger Savage, the former M&C Saatchi deputy creative director, who worked with Telfer on the agency's Royal Bank of Scotland account, suggests his style is in tune with current times when clients increasingly want their ads to feature real people.

"His subjects almost become three-dimensional," she points out. "By making people feel at ease in front of the camera, he brings out their realness."

Dave Buonaguidi, the creative director of Karmarama, which hired Telfer to photograph its recent Age UK print campaign, is equally effusive. "So often, old people can look like buffoons in ads. Alex's work for Age UK is inspiring and treats its subjects with real dignity," he says.

Self-belief and single-mindedness have always guided Telfer's career. He set up his own business aged just 22 when the UK was emerging from the recession of the early 90s. Why? Because, he says, of his belief that what he did was different and more creative than anything his local rivals could offer.

Fastidiousness is a constant in his work. The ageing child image for the French charity Enfance et Partage through M&C Saatchi in Paris is a prime example that involved painstaking searches for a boy who could produce the right mournful expression and adults with similar facial characteristics.

Telfer believes the transformational moment occurred during the retouching process when a decision was taken to make the image look less extreme.

Now, he is taking his expertise into directing commercials. The ground-rules are essentially the same, he claims, although film-making with a 40-strong crew is a much more collaborative process than the more solitary existence of the photographer.

What's common to both disciplines is the need to coax the right performance out of someone, he adds. He cites the example of his gold-winning knife crime image, which was posed by his unfortunate assistant who was encouraged to think his saddest thoughts while the happenings around him were made - by Telfer's own admission - "a bit intimidating".

Nevertheless, he doesn't see movie-making as a logical next step. "I like telling short stories, be they with still images or via commercials," he says.

And he still isn't keen to swap Northumberland - where he lives with his wife, Helen, and their son James, aged eight - for London either, not least because he doesn't want to jeopardise the steady flow of assignments from agencies in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and Leeds.

However, that's not to say that he wouldn't jump at the chance to work with long-admired hotshops such as Bartle Bogle Hegarty and Mother.

Instead, Telfer believes his future will lie in marrying his craft skills with the digital technology in which he continues to invest heavily.

"There will always be a place for great photographic images," he insists. "But everything is changing and those photographers who don't run with these changes will feel their effects. I don't intend being one of them."

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