But don't get the idea he's Mr. Serious, except maybe about his windsurfing. His photography, as far as he's concerned, is all about fun and spontaneity. In fact, on the subject of being interviewed, he says, "Some people are going to give me shit for this," as if he'll be forced to strike the kind of pose that's never seen in his pictures. Yet it's hard to keep a low profile when your work finds its way into so many campaigns that are the epitome of hip, casual and unassuming as some may be: Topelmann has shot for the likes of Nike, Reebok, Doc Martens and Pioneer car audio, all with that unforced style that's become a Gen-X touchstone; the kind of ads, and products, you can be comfortable about reaching out and touching, even if you're stoned.
In fact, since moving to Portland four years ago, Topelmann has rocked out in the region impressively, with plenty of work for Wieden & Kennedy and Cole & Weber, and he's since expanded his base to cover San Francisco and Los Angeles shops, with some East Coast forays that include shooting Eric Lindros skating in a parking lot for Leonard Monahan and Bauer hockey jerseys. No doubt Minneapolis will shortly be on his itinerary, if he has his way. Not bad for a 31 year old who used to assist in Chicago for nobody he feels is worth mentioning, and who shot only editorial till he went west.
"When I decided to concentrate on ad photography, I figured in Portland I could focus on the smaller agencies and windsurf as much as possible," he explains. He already had some friends from Chicago out there, including Cole & Weber art director Mike Sheen, who'd made the move a year earlier from Hal Riney. "I thought it would be an easier market to break into. Anyway, I'd rather shoot for Nike and the outdoor companies than for the package-goods brands in Chicago."
Who wouldn't? He got off on the right pedal in 1992 with Cole & Weber for the Gold Pencil-winning Klein bicycle campaign, and it's been pretty much downhill since. Sheen, of C&W's Portland office, who AD'd the Klein and Martens campaigns, is impressed with Topelmann on several counts. "He's great with angles and compositions, he's great with energy and action, and he's got to be great in the darkroom. No one really knows what goes on in there, but he comes out with some incredible prints."
Though he describes himself as a "low-tech," who has little interest in digital manipulation, Topelmann has since added some high-tech accounts, led by his biz-to-biz work for Microsoft and Anderson & Lembke; the most recent campaign features offbeat shots of management types exulting in digital triumph. Then, of course, there's the delightful "Roadkill Diaries" for Pioneer and BBDO/Los Angeles, in which he handles cracked asphalt and manhole covers with the same cockeyed aplomb he brings to people and animals. But, then, Topelmann is not one of those locked-down shooters. He's surely not a still-life man, though he's not exactly a portraitist either, and he does do some landscapes. He's the kind of mosh-pitiless dude who names Daguerre as a photo fave, and though he definitely favors b&w, he works in various formats, with 35mm leading the way, of course, for its spontaneity. "My father's a painter," he says, "and people have noticed similarities in our approaches. We like to be optimistic, and we're willing to break rules. But it's not a quest. My approach is a lot simpler than that. I see an image that's visually interesting, that's exciting, and that's pretty much the end of it. I don't go all that deep into my work. It's usually really just fun. In fact, a lot of my personal work, about 20 percent, comes out of traveling around with a little Olympus pocket camera, then heading for the darkroom. I often don't even look through the camera; I just set it for distance and shoot from the hip, over my head, whatever."
He's even perfected a technique for shooting people on the fly and sly, the camera gripped in his fist, the lens peeking through two fingers, his thumb on the shutter release. "I appreciate having a cheaper camera, and I don't mind taking a little longer to make a print."
The results of this technique can be far from casual; among Topelmann's personal work is a darkly affecting shot of St. John's Bridge in Portland, taken from the roadway with the clamshell and Tri-X. "My wife was driving along and I was standing up through the sunroof," he laughs. Topelmann's street portraits for Wieden & Kennedy and Coke's OK soda, which picture ordinary people holding mostly ordinary hand-written signs, like "Life is OK to me" and "Most of the time I feel OK!" have a similar through-the-sunroof feel transposed to the pavement. He has an equally moving hand with dogs, maybe more so. His nutty and engaging personal pooch poses, which feature animals out of focus, way off center, or, as is so often the case with his people, in motion, picked up some witty copy and made for a winning adopt-a-dog campaign for an organization called PAWS. Curiously, Topelmann doesn't own a dog, but he does own a 1-year-old child, and it looks like the tyke's going to grow up to be a Portlander. "I like it here, and I like the rain." he insists. "The light has a great quality to it; it's soft, not high-contrast, so a lot of the work has a moody edge to it and I push it further when I develop it."
He may also push his career further as he develops it. He finally hired his first rep a few months ago, Portland-based Danielle Melanson, a former Wieden & Kennedy art buyer, and the possibility of directing has "already been kicking around," he says. "A lot of people have asked me about it. I think I still have a way to go with print yet, though. If I did do some directing I certainly wouldn't drop all my print. But it seems like directing is the next step for a photographer nowadays," he says resignedly.