Regular Sideburn contributor, ace photographer and all-round good egg, Scott Toepfer travelled out to the Kansas Fairgrounds a few years back, to race and shoot photos. The original project the photos were taken for went dusty on a shelf, but now the images see the light of day thanks to Muerte, who have published then in a limited edition, 28-page book. I interviewed Scott about the project and photography in general. GI
When and where does this series of shots come from?
This series of photos is from August of 2015, at the Rooks County Free Fair in Stockton, KS.
Was it a commission?
That’s a funny question, but pivotal to why it took five years to put them together. Julian and Nevin were working for Deus Ex Machina at the time, needed photographs for a new line of products, and used the racing trip to Kansas (and consequently Iowa and Illinois) as an opportunity to work and play at the same time. So we road tripped and made some photos for the launch after Stockton. Initially there were plans to release a small zine/brochure with some of the photos, but as things go in the apparel industry, it never really came to pass within the brand.
I've heard lots about the Kansas Fair circuit and every racer seems to love it. Why do you think?
I think people love this fair circuit because of its genial nature and its history. It’s no small feat to travel to the western parts of Kansas, so everyone who is there is more or less feeling like it’s summer vacation. Everyone camps in the infield of the tracks, and they are half mile tracks, which in my opinion is the best kind of racing. Stockton has banked corners as well which is thrilling! Cold beer, warm nights, and carnival lights.
You raced and shot at the same events - was that difficult? Did you go to race or shoot or were you always planning to do both?
I was there at Stockton to race primarily, but I typically always take a few photos on race day. The beginning of our trip was all about catching the tail end of the I-70 circuit, and racing with the guys. But it became readily apparent as soon as we arrived that I would be shooting a lot over the next couple of days. It’s hard to balance both the excitement of getting ready for staging, and trying to photograph the races with the best action.
Did part of you wish you'd put these photos out before Fast and Left told the FT world about the Kansas scene?
You know, I had a little hesitation about even mentioning Stockton at the outset with these photos. Sort of like a hidden gem that the broader audience didn’t need to see. But, as with all racing these days, publicity helps the tracks and the promoters. So when Evan [Senn, director of Fast and Left] put out his lovely film, I felt at once both a camaraderie with his affection for the place, and a wish that I’d partnered up with him beforehand to try and put everything out together. It’s silly for creative observers to get too competitive about who did what first, especially since the Kansas scene has been around for a hundred years. The love of this sport and the place itself should take precedent over any of those other feelings.
Who are Muerte and how did the book project come about?
Muerte Studios is a company started by creative partners in Chicago. Nick Lipton, one of the founders, was a client of mine for years in the advertising world, and has since become a creative confidante and sounding board for all of my creative leanings. He saw this work a while back and was frustrated that I hadn’t put it out there in a big way. So when we started talking about putting out a zine in 2020, this set of images was a righteous choice.
You're a big supporter of Sideburn, supplying photos and shoots we couldn't afford to commission you to do, why is print still important to you?
I found photography and fell in love with it through printed images, magazines, and books. My dreams and aspirations about being a professional photographer were in seeing my photographs printed in particular places. If print goes away, so do those dreams in a way. Sideburn is particularly special to me, as I also love racing. You’ve given me opportunities to photograph some of my racing heroes, and given my photos somewhere to live, so I am grateful.
It's not enough to just be a good photographer nowadays, why do you put your ability to keep getting good jobs down to?
I do believe there is an element in luck in all of this, but I believe that by pushing myself creatively and putting in the work, I can increase my chances of impressing the right person to hire me. I am never satisfied, which is a terrible character flaw, but does help me keep pushing for the next thing. I also have a unhealthy fear of being broke again. I gave up a lot to pursue photography, and I’ll be damned if I don’t try to hold onto it.
How important is for photographers to do unpaid 'passion projects' (and can they lead to paid work)?
I firmly believe that our best work comes from personal projects. These types of projects inform whatever audience we have about what we find visually engaging. There is more room for creative experimentation, and a bit less pressure. It can absolutely lead to paid work, and then comes a whole other challenge of handling that added pressure and trying to maintain the balance between a creative voice and client expectations.
See more about and buy Kansas by Scott Toepfer from Muerte Studios