At age 27, Photographer Scott Toepfer has already established himself as one of the premier photographers when it comes to the American Heritage genre. We all saw his now widely-screened “It’s Better in the Wind” film as well as recognizable shots for Harley Davidson and new-comers, Iron and Resin. The first time I encountered Scott was at one of I&R’s Hooligan races at the Ventura Raceway. It was an overcast day and I had hopes of shooting the race. Didn’t shoot much but managed to catch a couple words back and forth with Toepfer and pitched him the idea of an interview.
Since then I’ve come to realize we share a lot of the same connections and when I happened to be going up to Ventura early one Sunday morning for the flea market, I shot him a call. Sure enough he said, “No Problem! Come on over!” Even at 27, the young photographer has a lot to say. And unlike others with his rising fame and impressive portfolio, none of it was about that. Here’s a down to earth guy who knows what is important in his life and takes the steps to balance his passions with the realities of the world.
We spoke for an extended amount of time, hanging out and exchanging stories. I later sent him a series of questions that I thought people should know based on meeting the man behind the camera.
So instead of focusing on what we all can find on the internet about a photographer and his work, I wanted our audience to know the real Scott Toepfer. Enjoy…
– INTERVIEW WITH SCOTT TOEPFER –
TSCM: Where did you grow up and how would you say it has influenced your interests and subject matter in your photography? If it hasn’t, would you say there is a connection to your lifestyle influencing what you shoot?
I grew up outside of Los Angeles, a suburb called Newbury Park. It was safe enough to jump on a bicycle with a couple of friends and disappear for hours and call home from wherever you ended up. If anything influenced my general sense of wanderlust, it would be those early years (8-12 years old) with those friends that I still have today. We rode BMX all throughout our childhoods, building jumps and knocking ourselves down. I was never the best at it, and took to the camera more and more as the risks of the riding went up. Now instead of calling my mom, I call my wife to let her know I am ok.
TSCM: At such a young age you’ve managed to build a career out of your passions. What would you say was a turning point where you realized you were doing so?
The day at which I was most scared and most proud of myself was when I quit my coffee shop job to go on a motorcycle ride that would help me to finish my first book. I knew that if I was going to make anything of myself in my own eyes, I had to finish my first significant undertaking with total, and utter disregard for the financial consequences of it. And couple of years later I was fired from assisting, and I knew in those moments that I was headed in the right direction.
TSCM: What would you feel ties together music and motorcycles in your subject matter? Is there an underlying theme even when you are shooting different subject matters?
I think both lifestyles carry a sense of disregard for social norms and it takes a specific person to take to it with a full heart. There are folks like myself who have ‘played in a band,’ but then there are people who have lived in vans for years at a time living off t-shirt sales and free drinks at small venues…just trying to make enough to get to the next show, because that is all they care about. Then there are guys who don’t rent apartments, but sleep next to their motorcycles on a futon. The fringe lifestyles will always be beautiful to photograph because they portray a fervor that doesn’t exist in 99% of the people you could bump into on any given day.
TSCM: Explain the importance of your garage (the friendships, the passion, collecting mentality, the scerenity…).
After years in LA of not having one to call my own, I finally have a garage with the place I rent in Ventura. It is great to have a place where I can make a mess with inspirational garbage that doesn’t belong on the dining room table. I keep my photography equipment next to my boxes of motorcycle parts, it is a place where my different mentalities can merge. It seems altogether relatively insignificant, but I crave a place [where I can] sit in quiet and I can choose to sit in secret or share a cool afternoon with the people that make my days better.
TSCM: What is a typical morning for Scott Toepfer?
I answer emails while half asleep, then fret about whether or not I checked for typos after a cup of tea. Carrie typically reminds me of something important I forgot to do while I build a little to-do list, and I jump on the bike and head to the studio. Nothing too wild, but any morning that I get to sit with Carrie early and banter without jumping straight into ‘work mode’ is a good one.
TSCM: How has moving out of LA and out to Ventura changed your style, routines, subject matter?
Moving to Ventura has been a bit of a dream come true, my friend. My wife grew up in the city, and we were both craving a slower lifestyle when I did my first shoot for Iron & Resin. We moved from Venice Beach shortly after that shoot, and wouldn’t really have it any other way. I have neighbors I know by name, I have a small porch and a couple diners that serve great breakfast within a few blocks. I know it sounds all too domestic, but Ventura has an old world grit that hasn’t been white washed by suburban expansion, so it suits my visual/social expectations as well. There are far fewer ‘desperate/real housewives’ here, and that makes all the difference.
TSCM: What seems to be a favorite camera and film combo for you?
Most dependable would be Canon A2 and Fuji Neopan 1600. The film is now gone, and I rarely use the camera anymore, but I’ve had some of my favorites come through that combo. I actually just bought a 1953 Leica M2, so we’ll see where that preference leans after a couple rolls.
TSCM: Following trends… do you ever feel that because something you love gets more wide-spread in modern media that it pigeon-holes you as a photographer? What about as a person?
I owe a lot of my current work to the trending of motorcycles and ‘Americana’ so I can’t help but be grateful. I worry at times that when motorcycles fall alongside pogs or razor scooters that I may be left behind, but I know that as long as I don’t pigeon-hole myself and get stagnant that I can take photos that people will want to see. As a person, if I get pigeon-holed as a dude who would rather be on the road with my girl eating diner food and taking photos…then so be it.
TSCM: What projects are going on currently in the Gingerbread House / Garage
Well, since we are now expecting our first little child, we have a few plans. We are getting two cribs, one for the bedroom, another for the garage. I know that when that little one comes every moment will be dedicated to him/her and my wife, so I’m trying to get certain personal projects ‘done’ as soon as possible. 1958 Triumph TR6 Fonzy project, a 1969 Chevy Biscayne Wagon, and my garage/studio build out are the top of the list.
TSCM: What three bikes would you want to own in your lifetime?
I’ve been fortunate enough to own a lot of motorcycles thus far, so my list is short. My top three would include:
a) My current pre-unit Triumph build,
b) 1968 Harley-Davidson FLH Electraglide (so much cool there)
c) Something simple I can ride to Alaska (KLR 650?) I know it’s tacky but I want to be able to ride anywhere without questioning it.
TSCM: If you could describe any of your tattoos that hold a sense of symbolism, which would you choose?
Most of my tattoos hold some sort of significance to a time in my life or a place I’ve been. Rose gardens, ‘hope/heart’, a Koru fern, an apple, a camera, a tarot card of ‘the sea,’ the boxer and the nurse…all of them remind me of something worth remembering.
TSCM: So Curtis’s bikes are hard to miss in the garage here…. He pops up quite a bit in your photos as well. A companion or instigator?
Of course you’d ask about Curtis. I’ve known this guy for years, he was shredding around the high school after hours while he was in middle school. I guess you’d describe him as a character with his own set of rules and values. Loyal, outrageous, up for anything at least once. When I moved back to LA he was one of the guys I reconnected with for the ‘It’s Better in the Wind’ project, and he went from a riding buddy to one of my best friends pretty quickly. He’s great on and off camera, and I have so many memories that never made it to film with him. When the heroin dealers next door were evicted, he signed paperwork to move in before the carpets were even replaced. He has a wild aesthetic that reminds me to take everything a little less seriously sometimes.
As we parted ways I was gifted one of his newest prints and a “let’s do a ride soon.” There is nothing so illuminating as sitting in a common man’s garage surrounded by tools of every craft, many blanketed in workshop dust and bathed in the mid day sun, and talking more about the non-objects that have greater meaning and less about the fame and notoriety that comes from them.
Learn more about Scott and his work here: