If you’ve ever seen a photograph of feet dangling over a stomach dropping sea of buildings, you know of rooftopping.
The photography trend is the result of rebellious ventures to the highest of heights – skyscrapers – for the most vertigo-inspiring photo possible. The craze has launched the careers of many photographers, idolized for their gut wrenching shots of the view below them. Neil Ta, a Toronto native, was one of those photographers.
Like any trend, rooftopping didn’t stay fun forever. Neil voiced his frustration with the movement itself and what has become in his blog post 5 Reasons Why I’m Fucking Done With Rooftopping. We talked to Neil about how he first found himself at eye level with window washers and cranes, and what it is about his love of photography was missing from his rooftop adventures.
What was it that drew you to rooftopping in the first place?
I had been following the Rooftopping Toronto series on a popular Toronto blog called BlogTO. Photographer Jonathan Castellino explored a number of rooftops in those early days and lent his stories and images to the blog. I later found the work of guys like Tom Ryaboi and Erik Mauer who I quickly befriended. They really influenced my work; they were like my rooftopping mentors.
In your blog post 5 Reasons Why I’m Fucking Done With Rooftopping, you talked about how rooftopping jumpstarted your career, but then quickly became your least favorite style of photography. Was there a specific straw that broke the camels back?
I wrote that article over a couple of months in pieces. I do a lot of writing as a means of verbalizing thoughts, but rarely do I ever publish it. The biggest realization for me happened when I sat down with another rooftopping friend to discuss the last couple of years of our work. We both agreed that rooftopping was a crutch for everyone and that it really stifled our creativity as artists. I knew other rooftoppers felt the same way as I did, but were afraid to articulate it for fear from the community. I’ve had a number of rooftoppers message me in private commending me for coming out (as well as others calling me out as being whiny).
You mentioned friendships being jeopardized by rooftopping culture as it became more competitive, everyone striving for the most vertigo-inspiring photo. How have your friendships with other photographers influenced your work, in good ways and in bad?
There definitely are relationships that have suffered since rooftopping became a business. For the most part my relationships have remained the same with those close to me.
Since easing out of rooftopping, what has become apparent to you as you’ve explored new passion projects and traveled to new destinations?
I find that I care much less about what others think. I also know that outside of this very small photography niche, no one genuinely cares much about our photos. Our images have become disposable in a way. They appear on a feed for a micro-second then vanish. No one cares about the future of rooftopping other than the people taking the photographs. And it’s in their best interest to keep it top of mind since they’re the ones benefiting the most from it.
You’ve taken photos for all manners of events and circumstances. If you could try to put a finger on your “style,” how would you explain it?
Different forms of photography influence me and I think my work reflects this. If I had to make a generalization about all my work, I would simply call it “artistic documentation.” No matter what I am shooting – rooftops, architecture, weddings, commercial work – I want to do it in a more artistic way.
What is one of the more emotion-filled shots you’ve taken? What was the situation and why is it meaningful to you?
There’s one photo that really stands out for me. It was during the G20 Summit in Toronto in 2010. A peaceful protester had just slipped flowers into the hands of riot police officers and I quickly snapped a photo of an officer holding a flower. Moments later the flowers were tossed on the ground and the horses came charging at the crowd.
Your cityscapes are extraordinary. What is it about a city that you seek to focus on or draw out in your photographs?
Going back to the “artistic documentation” mantra, my goal really was to take beautiful photos of the city. There’s something to be said about capturing things people see everyday in a different way. That’s why I like to take photos when the weather is optimal for unique views.
What do you want your work to be remembered for?
I’m at the point in my career that I don’t believe I have done anything that has warranted respect from my peers. I also don’t think I’m at the point where I want to specialize in anything. I get bored too easily to just shoot one type of genre. I like the idea that my architectural work can influence my wedding work, that street photography can influence my commercial work, and vise versa. The only thing I really want is longevity. I would rather make meaningful photos that are important to few than to make purely aesthetically beautiful images that lack substance.