Adam Fitzgerald: We met in the early days of Iron & Air. It’s been nine years and we’re still working on projects together, which is pretty rad. But I really first learned of you from your personal project and motorcycle-inspired photo book and film It’s Better in the Wind.
Scott G Toepfer: Between 2009 and 2012 the motorcycle world was opening up to me as a new lifestyle. There were a bunch of people that kind of came into the industry, myself being one of them, and Iron & Air as well. And I think it was just scrappy. Everyone was trying to find a place in social media and find a place on the internet, and trying to get their creative vision seen and heard.
For me, It’s Better in the Wind came out and people paid attention. Iron & Air also making the move from Instagram to becoming a print publication was like, “Look what we did in the world where print is seemingly dying. We’re coming out with an art-driven magazine with nice paper,” whereas everything else was not worth buying and holding onto.
I feel we were all trying to be the antithesis of disposable culture.
I remember the motorcycle thing and photography were basically the antithesis of how I grew up in the school system and the ideal that I was raised with. I grew up with a grandfather who said, “Hey, get good grades. You’ll go to Stanford and then life will be easy.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Well, I’ll do that.” And I didn’t get into Stanford despite my best efforts. I went down the biology research realm and then I got a year into that after college working for the Navy, and I hated it. I still find science interesting, but I was very unfulfilled in a lab coat. And so, the photography thing was a breakaway from that. It was just like, “Oh, there’s this other side of me that I’ve been wanting to explore. Maybe I should give this a shot.”
It’s such a 180 from what you were doing as a biochemist. I don’t think we’ve ever talked about what your first foray into photography was.
I took high school photography as an elective and learned how to use a dark room, and as a good student, I was able to ditch last period to photograph local bars and drink Slurpees. After that I went to college, but I didn’t really pick up a camera in a serious way. In my mind at the time, photography was a hobby, not a path. My mother got me a five-megapixel camera as a Christmas present, and I remember taking it to New Zealand and taking digital photographs. Being college poor, I had a camera and a computer, so I could do everything I wanted to do with just those two things. I used to play in mediocre college rock bands, so then I would go to shows and I would take pictures. I eventually upgraded my camera, but it was just this funny side-hustle so I could essentially get into shows for free. And it meant I got a better seat at the show and I got to meet the bands and I occasionally got a free t-shirt. And then I’d wake up and go back to my lab job.
Then, in 2007, I visited my old roommates, who were in grad school in Boston, and I found an art school and took it as a sign, like, “Screw it. I’m going to move to Boston and go to photo school. And I’m going to quit my job and take on a private student loan.” And that was, obviously, everyone in my family’s worst nightmare.
So that was the transition. But once I had an opportunity to shoot, a mentor at that time told me that I was fine and that I could take a technically good photograph, but I needed to find something I really like to shoot, and then it would all come together.
Was that when motorcycles came into the picture?
Carrie and I moved to Portland, Oregon, and I just tried everything. I would set up weird portraits in my backyard and photograph appetizers for The Portland Mercury. And that was right when the economy tanked in October ’08. I applied for the graveyard shift at an American Red Cross blood testing lab, and I applied for a part-time graveyard shift loading trucks for Frito-Lay. I got both jobs and I ended up not showing up to my first day at the Red Cross for training, and I just said, “Fuck it. I’m going to go load trucks for Frito-Lay so that I can actually still shoot if the opportunity arises.” So I gave up another really promising career as a lab manager for the Red Cross so I could load trucks with crazy kids. I was a college-educated biochemist just pushing carts carrying Cheetos.
I think on New Year’s Day 2009 Carrie and I decided we were getting out of Portland. It’s frozen. We don’t really have jobs. This is awful. So we moved back to California and I just started assisting other photographers. I started riding motorcycles with the guys that I used to ride bicycles with. And I started pushing film photos instead of digital. I sold my Volkswagen so I could buy my first motorcycle and a brick of Fuji Neopan 1600. I started a Tumblr blog in the early days of Tumblr. And then, Kickstarter started and I realized I could raise $2,000 to print a book of all these photos, and that’s how I published It’s Better in the Wind. One of the art buyers at Harley-Davidson’s agency at the time bought the book, and that’s how I got my first real shoot in the motorcycle industry. I was the second shooter for their apparel catalog.
So I made the book and the short film and started working with folks like you and Iron and Resin. And I had a couple of odd photo jobs that were helping to pay the bills. And it turned into this opportunity where I couldn’t screw it up so I had to work really hard and keep trying to hustle, you know? And then it was just chipping away at this giant block and trying to make a name for myself. And I still, obviously, have to do that every fucking day.
But what was the point where you said, “Oh, this is what I’m going to do forever?”
I knew I was going to try my damnedest to stay in the advertising freelance world by that point. My now-father-in-law was telling me to just go back to school and become a doctor as I was supposed to. And I was like, “I’m more than happy to live in your backyard.”
I did a handful of things where it was helping, but I don’t think there’s ever a moment where I felt like I’d “made it.” I’ve made really good money on jobs, but then I won’t work for months and it doesn’t feel like I ever did anything. I’m just always trying to continue working.
Yeah, that’s kind of the struggle of the artist. You don’t ever really feel like you’ve arrived. It never really feels like that. That’s kind of the tragic pursuit of it; it’s either tragic or beautiful. Our lives are so much different. And maybe they’re painful in the eyes of our bank accounts, but they’re kind of beautiful when you rewind and look at it as a whole, you know?
Yeah, sometimes I have a hard time seeing it. My perspective on it is that you have these really amazing glimmers where you say, “Yeah, dude, I fucking crushed it.” And then, the next two days — two days later — you’re still sort of riding that high and then you get thrown to the dogs and no one’s ever heard of you before. And you’re like, “Damn, man, this is a big world and I am small.”
I don’t think there’s ever an arrival moment. If someone wants to pay me a million dollars to do something, I’ll call you back and let you know that I’ve made it, but I’ve never subscribed to that way of thinking, like all I’ve got to do is this one thing and then we’re set. I definitely grew up with parents that were fucking worker bees. And you just chip away at this giant stone and hope that it turns into something pretty.
Both of us have kids of very similar ages and have led this weird pursuit of a life that’s so drastically different than our parents led. I don’t have anybody in my other circle of friends that can relate on that same level, like going on the road. A lot of times on the road it’s just this constant feeling of, “I should be there with my family,” or that I’m an absentee dad.
I live for that opportunity to go out on the road. And as my kids are getting older, it’s getting harder for me to explain to them how much I love to be on the road despite being away from them, which is a hard balance to strike. But that’s a huge mental health thing for me, and that’s how I balance everything. Everyone’s like, “Why don’t you just go shoot sunsets in Ventura and sell prints at a local hotel?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I don’t even see that. When I went out on the road doing the Dan Mahony and Yve Assad pieces, I was living in a pickup truck … in my mid-30s. That is not normal, but I fucking love it. I live to be on the road. And thankfully, my wife is a road trip person, too, so we hit the road together whenever we can.
I try to view it as being a little bit of a sacrifice, but if it’s a sacrifice in a way that shows my kids that there’s a different way to live and a different way to make a living, then it’s worth it. Because the alternative is to just do the nine-to-five thing and grind it out, and to let somebody else assign a value to your worth, and continue to receive a paycheck — and then retire at 65 when your kids are all adults and don’t call you anymore. It’s the fear of growing up or raising kids and perpetuating a cultural norm that has been burned into our psyches for so long.
That’s taking that leap and trying to pursue something that you care about rather than something that you have an idea of. Don’t get me wrong; I want to provide for my family, but I’ve been thinking a lot about funerals lately, which is weird. But if at my funeral someone says, “He was a poor man, but a happy man,” or something like that, I’d be all right with that. I say this now, feeling artistically confident, but I’d rather go out like that than, “He spent all of his time working and saving up for his funeral so that everyone there could eat fucking shrimp cocktail.”
So you’re saying there’s not going to be shrimp cocktail at your funeral?
Well, if someone else is paying for it. I try to keep all the money in the production.
I got you. And this year has been weird for everybody. What sort of impact has it had on you in terms of the way that you’re approaching projects and the way you’re thinking about your craft?
The motorcycle thing is always going to be a part of me, I guess. I love it. You should see my garage — it’s a mess. It’s full of motorcycle stuff. I love it, but the industry is obviously a tricky one to survive in, and I don’t think it’s sustainable to solely rely on it as my income. I’m trying to branch out. I tried doing the car thing, but I don’t think the advertising world always sees cars the way that I do. I had a few glimmers and had a few amazing clients that were willing to let me do my thing. For some people, it works, and for other people, it doesn’t, and that’s okay.
I’ve been doing the cowboy and western stuff as well. It’s not so much about shooting cowboy life, necessarily, as much as I’m just trying to be a student of the West. I just really enjoy certain periods of time and certain lifestyles.
Was that one of the projects you did this year?
Yeah, during quarantine I had a friend that worked in the rodeo, and he’s pretty local to me. And so, this opportunity showed up in Kern County, which is about an hour and a half from me. And I went right when everything sort of started opening up, and Kern County is one of those counties where they’re like, “Fuck the pandemic. We’re living large.” So I took full opportunity of that —against my better biological judgment, but I needed to. And I went out and shot bull riding practice. Some of these guys are pros, and they’re out practicing their craft. So I went and immediately got kicked in the face by a bull and had a really good time getting hurt, getting dirty, and just following this very visceral experiment that these guys are doing. It gets wild. I was introduced to the rodeo world during a motorcycle racing trip to Kansas in 2015, and I just loved it.
I think it’s awesome that you’re still out there trying to shoot and trying to find and explore these things in these little pockets of America that some people ignore and just don’t think about.
Yeah. I’ll say this: I’m totally the champion of the personal project, and I feel like if you’re struggling to get work — like myself and I imagine most freelancers are right now — you better start shooting stuff on your own, because no one’s just gonna show up and save you. You’d better hurry up and get to work because, if it’s a job, it’s a job, and you gotta show up for it. And that’s the curse of turning something you love into your job, because it means you’ve got to do it even when you don’t want to. And even when everything kind of sucks and it’s frustrating, you’ve still got to show up and put in the time. So I’m always trying to remind myself of that.
What sort of projects do you want to chase after?
I’m chasing the idea of working on films and trying to write scripts. I didn’t go to film school; I know very few people in that world. But I’ve been around some people that I really respect and who’ve shown me some really cool ways of making art and sharing ideas. I see films out there on the internet and I’m like, “Man, I want to work with those folks,” because I feel like that person can shoot my idea, and can execute my idea better than I can at this point in my career. So I want to work with people that are even better at their craft than I can be.
As the guest editor of Issue 042, what do you hope the content of our first photo issue communicates to readers?
I always thought I recognized good photography even when it wasn’t my own. I always liked the idea of being a photo editor, which is obviously a tough job to get these days. So this was a really cool opportunity for me to think about that and think about the things that I really appreciate in other photographers and to highlight those things and celebrate people that I find value in.
The Dan Mahony thing, for example. Yve [Assad] knows who Dan Mahony is. The older racing community knows who Dan Mahony is. But the broader world, and even the racing world, might not. And so, that’s something that ends up on Pinterest boards and Instagram, but no one ever knows where those photos came from. And they don’t know that it comes with this story, and the photographer has as good a story as a lot of the racers do.
And there is Dean Landry — it was a personal curiosity for me. I love the guy’s photography and I’ve met him, but I’ve never really had a chance to ask him what his story was. How did you pick up this crazy giant camera and decide that’s how you wanted to walk around New York? So, selfishly, this issue gave me an opportunity to reach out to people that I had questions for, and to explore their creativity and learn a little bit about their process, out of my own curiosity.
I’m a big fan of the idea of authorship. A photograph isn’t necessarily a hard-and-fast thing; it’s more of a conversation starter between the person taking the photo and the person looking at the photo. I want to facilitate that conversation.