Always looking up
Cuffs Urban Apparel2523 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95826
A Brooklyn resident since 2004, 29-year-old Keith Telfeyan returns to his hometown of Sacramento this month to exhibit his minimalist photographs. Admittedly obsessed with the design, light and ubiquity of streetlamps, the photographer and filmmaker—who still uses 35mm film with his Contax G2 and Yashica T4 Super point-and-shoot—points his lens to the firmament, capturing its subtleties in pictorial meditations. He talked to SN&R about philosophy, spirituality in his work, his former ska band and his current show at Cuffs, Everything Is Awesome.
You were born in Sacramento?
Yeah, and I went to El Camino [Fundamental High School]. I studied photography there under an awesome teacher named Don Accomando, graduated in ’99. I went to [UC] Berkeley after that, and I intended on staying with photography, but UC Berkeley doesn’t have a photo program … so I got into filmmaking.
Wasn’t your major originally philosophy?
My intended major was philosophy, but it was a little too dry for me. I needed something that had more of a—I don’t know, something more interesting. I mean, philosophy is of course interesting, but … in UC Berkeley’s film program, there was a lot of philosophy also, but it adds another component of art. I loved that program.
From the way you speak, it’s apparent you philosophize a lot.
Yeah, definitely. A picture’s not interesting to me if it doesn’t provoke some sort of thought, a conversation.
Do your images pay all the bills?
I get photo jobs steadily, so it’s half and half. I teach as well. I teach art to elementary-schoolers at the Montessori school in Brooklyn.
Cool. And you get to drain all of the youth out of the students so you stay forever young, too.
Yeah (laughs), that’s the idea. A lot of my friends out here, they take jobs that are in advertising or at graphic-design firms. Corporate gigs, for the most part, seem very adult and very fulfilling monetarily, to some degree. But they’re a little soul-sucking. I just haven’t been convinced that that’s a good way to go. So I’m happy to teach. … It gives me plenty of time to pursue what I actually want to be doing. … I have my own projects going on, sometimes for free, sometimes paid. I edited a film by a friend of mine; I edited that as a job. I also made a music video for a band I really like, and I did that for free.
Can you drop some names?
Sure. The band is Isan. I just finished editing a song for them called “Working in Dust,” and it’s on Vimeo now.
You’re in the city, but there’s a lot of unobstructed sky in these photos. Where did you take them?
All over. A handful of them were taken in Manhattan, walking around downtown. … There was one taken in Sacramento. It’s the blue one of a weather vane. That was taken at my parents’ old house. … It’s actually hard, because in Brooklyn—I mean, I love Brooklyn, I’m not moving any time soon—but it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing place for me in terms of inspiration. There’s a lot of blocks to looking at the sky.
Your work reflects calmness, and that’s something the city is not.
It’s true. It’s kind of frustrating, because New York City is not generally thought of as a calm and serene place. … It’s something that I want to bring here. I want to remind people that it’s here, but it’s not readily available. But at the same time, it’s within us.
Are you spiritual, and does that affect your work?
I never thought of it as being an issue, but I’m definitely a spiritual person. I don’t meditate much. … I just try and live with intent; I try to live minimally and to my certain aesthetic standards. … But the real prevailing idea [behind my work] is a spiritual one, you know, this oneness in the universe and how great that is.
What spots do you revisit when you come back to town?
The American River. I grew up near there in Carmichael. And downtown. … It’s always nice to see Sacramento’s personality grow up, I guess. I like that, because I’m a little conflicted about the town, because on one hand, it’s the capital of California, but on the other hand, it feels like a small town.
Tell me some secrets.
I feel really fortunate to have gone to El Camino, where we had this terrific darkroom and photo program. We also had this awesome radio program that I was a part of. All those things influenced me to be a creative person. I was actually also in a band as well, in high school. We’d play shows at Bojangles.
What was the name of the band?
Fun With Logic. That was back in the ska-punk days—that was the kind of band we were.
Are you a poet?
(Laughs.) I am. Well, I won’t call myself that, per se, but I have written a lot of poetry and I think of my work as visual poetry. Thanks, I appreciate that as a compliment. It’s always dangerous to call yourself something.
So, when you walk around, are you always looking up?
(Laughs.) I try and look all around me, but in general, that is—yeah, I like to look up. Not always, of course, but I do look up a lot. I look up more than most.