Tait Simpson calls himself an environmental photographer. While the term provides you with a certain sense of what he does, it fails to articulate the precise way he creates narrative. The images he creates may not have the truth-telling style of photojournalism, but they speak to a larger truth, a less concrete truth, a truth that has to do with love and longing and loneliness and beauty. One of his favorite places to shoot is Iceland—that’s where his current aesthetic really began to emerge—because of the stark, graphic quality of the landscape, and also because of its weather. He loves to shoot thick fog because, he says, “The way it can kind of isolate and separate things in the landscape is really exciting.”
So, you’re a photographer. Let’s start with your relationship to that particular medium. From whence did it spring?
I’ve always been really interested in it, but it really started in earnest when I was 12 or so, when I received a PXL 1000 as a gift from my uncle. It was a really cool device. It recorded video onto audio tapes, like really lofi, black and white. I grew up in Los Angeles, so I was kind of around the film industry. I had my heart set on being a director, a filmmaker of sorts. I pursued that for a long time. I always shot still pictures with my dad’s camera or something like that, just kind of for fun.
Was coming to New York always the plan?
No, not necessarily. I had this idea that I wanted to go to the East Coast and have my college experience, so I applied to all of the colleges that you might think of—Dartmouth and Tufts and those kinds of places. I didn’t get in anywhere other than Vassar, and that was fortuitous, because it was the one of all the places that I went to visit that I actually liked. So I studied there and ended up coming to Brooklyn after graduating in 2001.
And how did your career develop from there?
I was working in commercial production here in New York. I had a nine-to-five job, and I was doing the thing, and then I was like, all right, I’m going to go freelance. I didn’t understand at the time what it meant to be freelance, and after the first two weeks of not working, I thought, something’s wrong. An opportunity came up for me to work on a documentary project in Los Angeles, so I left New York. I was out there for three years working on a project that ultimately collapsed. But when I was in Los Angeles, I met a fashion photographer and really started thinking about still photography as a possible career, or at least taking it from a hobby to something more serious.
Was this person like a mentor?
A friend and a mentor. I did work with him for a while, and it coincided at least with the timing of when I was really trying to figure out what working as a photographer would mean for me, in terms of what I wanted to shoot, what genre, what my style and aesthetic was, or was going to be. It was an interesting environment because he worked with a lot of young photographers. He was an older guy, and the rest of the group was in their late 20s. I was around a lot of people trying to figure out the same types of things.
It’s handy when that happens.
It can be, in the sense that there was a really collaborative environment there. There was a shooting space that we could take advantage of, so that was really helpful, even though all the stuff I was doing at the time ultimately I left behind. I went into a really different direction, but I feel like I really learned a lot, at the very least about what I didn’t want to do.
Talk about that a little bit more. What did you discover that you didn’t want to do?
I found out that I wasn’t cut out to shoot fashion. I didn’t have the passion for the clothing and the other things about that business. There are a million guys out there trying to do the exact same thing, and I think you really have to live and breathe it to make it work. What I did like was the unlimited possibilities of storytelling in a single image, where you aren’t necessarily tied to what’s real, or what’s authentic or true. In a way it can be totally fantastic, totally inventive and otherwordly in a way that other photography isn’t. The other valuable thing I learned was about lighting artificially, and using light, and that’s important no matter what. That’s a lot of what I’ve had to do since coming back to New York and working for other photographers. Although what I shoot myself relies almost 100% on natural light, working in the studio you almost create it from scratch. To be able to do that well is a talent, but it’s also a craft. You develop it without a lot of practice, and I got a lot of practice. It was really valuable.
How would you describe what you do? What type of photographer are you?
That’s a hard question to answer. Normally when I describe to people what I shoot I say environmental photography. I guess what I mean by that is not that it’s environmental in a political way, but in a location-based way. Whether it’s landscapes, cityscapes or people, it tends to all be outside, or at least not in the studio.
Can you describe the moment when you were like, “Aha! This is my thing”?
I have a number of times picked up and gone on longer solo travels. I went to Iceland, and I was traveling around the country for six weeks. If you know anything about the landscape in Iceland, it’s really easy to spend a lot of time by yourself out there. When I came back I really felt like I had found a way to speak through the images, rather than just feel like I was trying to emulate something else. It was really coming through my heart.
So you got back, and you thought, “Oh my god, I see it.” Then what happened?
I put together a slideshow, and I invited a lot of friends and a lot of people whose opinions about art and photography I respected. The response I got from it really helped me figure out that I should continue in this direction. I started trying to pull together a book that really highlighted the themes and ideas and aesthetic that I was going for. I still show a lot of the images in the book today.
What’s the hardest thing about doing what you do?
The marketing and the sales aspect of things. It’s really a drag. I love shooting, I love putting together the work. I love editing, printing. I’ve made my own books. I like to have a hand in the whole process, and do as much as I can by hand. I can feel really comfortable and confident in that respect, but I don’t fancy myself a salesman, and I don’t feel comfortable doing that. It just gets harder and harder actually.
Do you have any thoughts or strong feelings about the rise of iPhone photography?
I think it’s a great tool for promotion, and for learning, because you get that instant feedback. I think there’s also a certain negative aspect in that you don’t go through a similar process of editing that you would if you were shooting film, for example. When I was learning how to take pictures, I knew that I couldn’t afford to develop more than one roll of film, so I had to think before I shot a picture. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t shoot something because I was concerned about the cost, but I thought about it. If I were learning now, I might not have that thought process about making images.
Well, one thing that’s changed is that photography is no longer tactile the way it once was. I remember being in the darkroom with my hands covered in chemicals.
I do think that the tactile nature is now missing. And I think that’s why I really appreciate working on printing and binding process of making a book. It brings it back to that. If I’m not in the darkroom making a print, at least I’m taking a print and putting it into a box or a book that has the same handcrafted aspect to it. I think the ease in which you can make some really fun, out there images with some cool filters and apps is awesome. You can get an image out there in the blink of an eye. The problem is that it may also fade out as quickly. It’s not as permanent and lasting.
Do you still shoot with film?
I do. I still like to shoot medium-format and 35mm. I’m not really large-format anymore.
At this stage in your development as an artist, do you still have the stress of needing to make something every day?
I don’t think I have that stress. A little while ago I embraced the way I work, and the style in which I work. I tend to go through periods of really intense creativity, and periods of drought. I enjoy the flux of it. When I’m in it, I’m in it, and it’s all I think about, and it’s really exciting and really challenging. Then I’m able, when I’m out of it, to take a step back and hopefully look around at other things with a slightly different perspective. I try not to worry about it too much.