Photographer Profile - Michael Turek: "I don't shoot film out of some romantic notion"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday August 30, 2016

Off and on over the past year, New York-based photographer Michael Turek  has been working on a project about some unusual people who live among us — those who wear watches on the inside of their wrists.

“It started one day when I and a friend of mine were getting coffee, and I noticed the barista was wearing her watch that way,” Turek says. “I started asking her all sorts of questions about why she did it. My friend, who’s an industrial designer and is constantly thinking about how people use products, was also interested. So we’re doing the project together. We basically find people on the street in New York. He interviews them about why they wear their watches like that, and I photograph them.”

Turek works on the project between assignments for magazines — his travel and lifestyle photography has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Dwell, Architectural Digest, Departures, and Men’s Journal — and jobs for commercial clients, including British Airways and COMO Hotels. He has other sideline series going on at the same time, and, curiously, when he describes them you realize they often seem to focus on people who do things differently. He’s been working on a long-range project, for instance, on the phenomenon of “dark tourism” — pricey guided excursions to places associated with death and disaster.

Or perhaps it’s not that curious, because as a photographer Turek himself is something of an iconoclast: He shoots about 90 percent of his work — commercial and personal — on film. That makes him the photographic equivalent of someone who wears his watch backwards.

It’s a personal thing, he says, not a statement about digital technology or a particular preference for the look of film. “I want to be clear, I’m not against digital,” he says. “I like the way film images look, but you know what? A lot of digital images look really good too.” He says he simply finds it more joyful to work with film.

“This might be more specific to my personality,” he says.

Digital cameras, which can do so much and do it so quickly, are overwhelming to him, like a restaurant with a long menu of tantalizing choices. He says that shooting Kodak Portra film with the Pentax 67 cameras he’s come to love slows him down and makes him more deliberate.

“With digital cameras, it’s like, take a shot, then do this and then this and meanwhile look at the screen to see what I’ve got, and then I feel like I’m missing something because I’m not looking at what’s around me,” he says. “I end up feeling frazzled and exhausted.”

Film is his solution. “It limits my appetite; that’s the best way I can describe it,” Turek says. "I feel more focused without trying to be focused, or spending energy to be focused.”

Purity Vs. Branding

He may be different but he’s not alone.

When Turek made the switch to analog in 2012, after shooting with digital cameras professionally for eight years, he was blazing a trail back to the future. More recently there has been something of an analog renaissance. In Hollywood a number of high-powered directors, including Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams, have been shooting big-budget movies on celluloid. Sales of instant film, once doomed by digital, are growing. And a number of young fashion photographers have gained notoriety recently by shooting film.

“There’s a purity to film. It’s refreshing,” explained Jaime Perlman, creative director of British Vogue, in an article at Business of Fashion.

Turek echoed that idea in an essay he contributed to Conde Nast Traveler’s website in June. “Shooting film heightened the sensation of being focused in the moment, which is at the heart of what photography is about,” he wrote.

On the other hand, he says that shooting film is not an existential exercise for him. “I don’t do it out of some romantic idea about photography. As far as running a business, it’s got to make sense.”

And it does, he says. “Some of my clients think it’s cool, and some don’t care what I shoot on,” he says. “But what’s interesting is that shooting with film has given me a kind of brand identity within the business.”

“Michael's work is exemplary. It's always poetic, cinematic, and cover-worthy,” says Michael Shome, the photo director of Architectural Digest. “Few photographers consistently capture their subject matter as dynamically as he does.”

Turek has been straddling the divide between photography’s past and future since he attended the Rochester Institute of Technology. “I started there in 2000, and for the first two years, everything was analog. But by the end of 2002, it all started to shift,” he says. “The school mobilized for digital rapidly, and the darkrooms began to disappear. My class was probably the last to make Cibachrome prints.”

After RIT he worked for a time as a photographer in Detroit’s automotive world and did stints in San Diego and Washington D.C. before moving to New York and assisting several photographers. “And oddly what I found was that New York was the least digital city I’d been in,” he says. “The reason was that there was this huge infrastructure in place that made shooting film very easy. If you were on a fashion job, you could send a couple of test rolls to a lab  and have it back in 45 minutes, and you were ready to start shooting.”

Slow Photography

When he first moved to New York, Turek played around with different styles and genres of photography. He says he began to find what he liked to do while working as an assistant to travel and portrait photographer Frédéric Lagrange. “He is a fabulous photographer and a very cerebral guy,” Turek says. “He was shooting with Pentax 67s, and I guess I picked up my love for the camera then. I find that format so much easier to use than 35mm. For me, 35mm is a challenge. It’s almost panoramic.”

Another of Turek’s personal projects focuses on the U.K.’s Yorkshire region, where his parents live and where he spent a great deal of time growing up. Over the past decade he has made a number of trips there to photograph what he calls the area’s “bizarre, beautiful landscape” for a series called “Yorkshire Holiday and Home.”  It was in Yorkshire that he began experimenting with film.

“I’d been shooting there with digital cameras, and when I got my Pentax 67s, I decided to try something different and not just keep repeating myself,” he says. “When I got the film back I was amazed. I emailed scans of the photographs to some photo editors who were familiar with the project, and one said, ‘Oh this is good. What Instagram filter were you using?’ I thought it was so interesting that in less than a decade the visual vocabulary had changed so that when people saw these images the first thing that sprang into their minds was an Instagram filter.”

Digital is not dead. But for some it has worn out its welcome. Writing at Artsy  in July, Molly Gottschalk noted that digital has reached the climax of its revolutionary stage in photography. It has turned the masses into art makers, she writes, leaving many photographers to look for new creative horizons. And what's new is old.

“A lot of people still ask me,  ‘Don’t you miss shots with film?’” Turek says. “And I tell them, yes, that’s a thing that happens. But the trade-off is worth it. For the kind of work I do — longer narrative stories about places and people — I can get what I need with film.”