Timur is beloved by magazines such as i-D, Fantastic Man, The Sunday Times Style and L’Uomo Vogue - who relish his intellectual approach that’s always undercut by a sharp sense of humour. His work always surprises and challenges the viewer - whether he’s shooting shoes from the pit of a helicopter, feet dangling below - to a fashion editorial studying the sartorial choices of Sikh men. His nuanced, beautiful use of lighting is astounding - setups are often as epic as that of a film set, and his ability to street cast just the right person for a shoot is impressive - he once flew out to Moscow to have coffee with a pianist for a musician-themed fashion shoot, just to check he’d found the right guy.
Brought up in Germany as a son of Turkish parents, he’s now lived in East London for over a decade. His career began when he won the photography prize at the Festival International des Arts de la Mode in Hyères, and he’s not looked back since. Recent clients have included & Other Stories, Alexander McQueen and Philippe Starck, and he’s just been featured in Thames and Hudson’s book Fashion Photography Next. Holly assisted Timur just over half a decade ago, and has vivid memories of Timur’s insistence on researching every possible angle of an aesthetic or idea, something that’s stuck with her ever since. That, and him being super fun to work with: even 5am call times were peppered with Timur’s cheeky sense of humour.
Timur Celikdag : One of the men from my Istanbul series that won the prize in Hyères. They were completely unaware that they were to me part of a ‘fashion’ shoot I had pre-staged in my own head. This project inspired me to work with more subjects in which fashion and portraiture got merged into one.
Your first personal project, a series of portraits of local Turkish men shot in Istanbul, won you the photography prize at the Festival International des Arts de la Mode in Hyères. Can you tell me what lead you to do this project, and how it has influenced your career since?
Having grown up in Germany as a son of Turkish parents, I always noticed a difference in men’s style when visiting Turkey during family holidays compared with the men of the country I was living in. Photographs of my father as a young man hanging out with his friends gave me the inspiration to spend three weeks on the streets of Istanbul portraying guys straight off the street without styling them.
However, throughout my time there I had a strong preconceived fashion criteria - in that I only approached the ones with a certain style, which to many westerners may seem 'unfashionable' but to me it was so authentic and fascinating as it showed a connection to their culture. I found it admirable how these men - some of which came from very modest backgrounds - have a strong self-confidence in their look and a natural pride in their masculinity. They were completely unaware that they were to me part of a ‘fashion’ shoot I had pre-staged in my own mind.
Your fashion photography is never predictable, due to your consistent ability to mix humour and fun with a thoughtful approach, as well as your ability to challenge gender and sexuality clichés, for example. Can you tell me about a favourite recent editorial you’ve worked on?
Pink it’s my new obsession (i-D, 2013) is one of my recent favourites. Pink was the obvious choice to use for this men’s story, however the real concept was to depict certain stereotypes of men ranging from laddish to androgynous types. It was so refreshing as the stylist Elgar Johnson wasn’t just ticking off credits but instead used styling (and also the hair and make up of course) to transform their personalities - so we did a series of our own ‘makeover’ photographs. We had a mix of street casts and models for this, putting the guy above in a pink football kit and giving him a mullet was one of my favourite ‘transformations’ within this series.
I loved the 'A Love Story with Eden and Lizzie' shoot you did for & Other Stories this year, which depicted the model Eden Clark and her girlfriend at the time. Can you tell me a little more about your inspiration for this shoot and how it came about?
& Other Stories approached me with their idea of a love story, documenting Lizzie and Eden as a couple. They wanted the two to take the images of each other, which seemed an obvious inspiration due to our current obsession with selfies - however the art director, the stylist and I actually looked at far older references of a narcissistic nature, some showing portraits shot via mirrors (thank God selfie sticks didn’t exist at the time).
It was important to us that the final images were really shot by them though, so we used huge mirrors in every shot. To document a reflection of yourself via a mirror is quite a weird concept and having a loving couple, feeling as one and taking images of themselves made it even more interesting. I was just directing the composition and the lighting so removing myself as the photographer was quite freeing as it enabled me to look at it from a more objective perspective. Also, giving them the control over which moment the image was taken also made a difference to the way they were posing and how they were acting towards each other.
I think it’s a bit similar to the concept of a Photo Booth - a few months ago my girlfriend and I took a picture in one of the photo booths you have on a few street corners in Berlin and it’s one of the most beautiful self-portraits I have. Drawing the curtain close so no one else can watch and not having one of us (we are both photographers) take the shot - instead it’s a machine on a self-timer documenting you - is quite funny.
Timur Celikdag : 'A Love Story with Eden and Lizzie', for & Other Stories, 2015. These portraits of the couple for & Other Stories were all shot by the sitters and were mirror reflections of themselves. Removing myself and acting more as a director was not only freeing in some ways, but also interesting in the way it changed the dynamics between me and them - and between them as well.
Which people have been your major inspirations in your career, when it comes to photographers, artists or otherwise?
There are many artists I find inspiring, but I also like how simple experiences, or observations of someone on the street, or a post card, a book or a TV show can be inspiring. Growing up in Germany in between two different cultures always made me feel a little like an outsider, so I very often looked at things from an outsider’s perspective. This was always a huge inspiration, even if it wasn’t the most comforting. Living in London has now given me more of a feeling of belonging but I luckily didn’t lose this feeling, probably as a third culture got added
What are your plans and dreams for the next few years?
Photography is an amazing tool to explore cultures and people emotionally - and all in all myself really. Shooting a lot can make you fall into a routine or trap expectation-wise and commissions can limit you to repeating certain patterns, I hope to never lose the luxury of the free creativity I’m enjoying at the moment, working across different boundaries. What I love about my ‘job’ is that you always get challenged and you never stop learning. I hope that I never will.
Timur Celikdag : The Recital, Fantastic Man, 2009. Watching musicians perform, I always envied how they transport themselves into a state of trance which almost seems sexual at times - and must be so absorbing otherwise they’d realise how silly some of the faces they pull look. So I had the idea of suggesting the idea of a pianist who had something really elegant and romantic about the way they play to Fantastic Man. I found this Russian pianist - getting to see his dedication and obsession with this instrument, playing endless hours every day was just mind-blowing devotion.