Five years ago, portrait and fashion photographer Mei Tao’s agent gave her strict instructions on how to improve her professional branding. At that point, Tao was a hard-working mother of a then-thirteen-year-old, skeptical of social media as a space for self-promotion. “On Instagram, I was busy taking photos of, like, a crack in the wall, or sometimes I’d see a bug and caption it, ‘is that a bug?’” But when Alzheimer's Disease placed her mother in the hospital for an extended stay, Tao began documenting those moments and felt suddenly compelled to share them.
Maybe I wanted attention,” Tao says. “And guess what, that’s what I got: the comfort and kindness of people and strangers. The humanity of it all was surprising.
Since then, Tao’s feed has become less concerned with aesthetics and more focused on storytelling. A playful and colorful respite from the demands of her on-set life, scroll through and you’ll find a natural balance of work and play. But the most endearing posts are those that feature her now-eighteen-year-old daughter, Dash, as she spends her final summer at home before leaving for college. There’s Dash getting dressed up for prom (with the help of stylist Sarah Clary, of Jenna Lyon’s Stylish); an unsmiling Dash with a balloon string wrapped around her legs (with the caption, “screaming with laughter on the inside”); a mirror selfie of the two of them taken by Dash herself (“It’s not everyday you make it into your teens selfie but today was the day"). Every post feels spontaneous and a little messy, relatable but not too revealing. Which is not, apparently, how Tao would describe herself as a teenager. “I was too busy overthinking everything to be messy. I wasn’t brave enough yet to be spontaneous.”
Growing up as an immigrant in Brooklyn in the 1980s, (Tao’s family relocated to New York from China, where they’ve remained since) Tao felt she had a lot to learn, quickly. Especially as it related to fashion and design, two nascent interests for Tao. “Some people played the piano, I was addicted to fashion magazines.” So she applied and got into the High School of Fashion Industries, where she developed an interest in capturing the intricacies of design. “I found I was more attracted to creating striking imagery versus creating the designs themselves.” With that in mind, she headed to Parsons where she learned, amongst other things, that she could make a living and career out of photography. “I didn’t want to leave New York, I was having way too much fun,” says Tao. Fun, for Tao, meant proximity to art and artists and the opportunities they opened up: from interning at the Village Voice and The Met, to shooting the lead singer of the Breeders for Interview Magazine, to taking Sally Potter’s portrait in her apartment--all while working as a waitress at the now-shuttered Road to Mandalay restaurant on Broome Street.
Glamorous, you might think. “Terrifying,” says Tao. “I was completely intimidated. I choked. I retreated and began assisting photographers instead of putting myself out there as one.” As Tao describes it, this is something she attributes to having an “immigrant’s mentality--the feeling that [she] didn’t belong.” A harsh assessment from someone who had seemingly led more lives before the age of thirty than someone three times her age. It wasn’t until years later, she says, while shooting for the teen catalogue Delia’s that Tao felt she had found her pace. “It was a recurring gig that just felt like this safe-space where I could hone in on my skills. For the teens and models on-set and also for me, in return.” Tao says.
When it comes to raising her own daughter, a now teenager, in New York City, Tao maintains the same brutally honest, work-hard mentality.“ I don’t know how to be any other way. Whether it’s teaching her how to navigate the city safely, or about the economic disparity here, or growing up as a person of color in this city--honesty is key,” Tao says. “It’s all about highs and lows,” Tao says, recounting a story about when her daughter was in Kindergarten and was picked up for a sleepover in Connecticut by her friends’ family chauffeur. “The next day, we got on the subway and I dropped her off at her Chinese Sunday school,” says Tao. “But that’s New York, isn’t it?”
In terms of her personal style, Tao grips hard onto the high-and-low rule. Especially as it relates to the small details. Like accessories. To tell the story of how she brought her own twist to the Carolina Bucci bracelet, Mei shares some of her best on-set style secrets and the key to standing out in the city that never slows.
I’m in the process of choosing my beads and colors and I’m finding it strangely difficult! A fun challenge. It’s simple, right? They’re like here, do whatever you want. And I’m suddenly like, I don’t know what I want!
I think, what it comes down to, is that I’m overthinking it! It should be simple. There’s a part of me that’s freaking out about these color combinations.
For me, I don’t know that much about stones. I really just respond to color. And I know how to wear them in a certain way. I know what colors I like on me. And I want this accessory to be fun. Because that’s the spirit of this bracelet. So I went with the blues that remind me of well-worn denim and I picked red because it signifies luck in Chinese culture.
My personal style is all about comfort and proportions. I have to go to work and perform in a certain way and if clothing restricts me then I don’t respond well. But I also understand the importance of presentation. In my business, everyone clocks each other. Because you meet so many people all the time, first impressions go a long way.
So, immediately, you want to set the right tone. I dress for the job while holding onto myself and identity. I use my wardrobe to protect myself and project how seriously I want to be taken.
I want to impress you without intimidating you. I love menswear. I don’t have to worry about my ass hanging out.
At my senior show in 1988, I had a key spot. And Richard Pandiscio, the Creative Director at Interview and Stephen Gan, at Visionaire, happened to walk by. They took my business card that I made on a Xerox machine and they called me to ask if I wanted to come in with my book. And I’m like, my book? My book at the time was basically my senior thesis with portraits of my then-boyfriend with his brother and sister. Five portraits. And for whatever reason, it compelled people to call me. Thank God for that Xeroxed business card.
In how I dress, I always like to have something that is a little off. Something surprising. My friend Ben once said to me: good taste can be learned, but bad taste makes things interesting. And god, that has always stayed with me. Everyone can have good taste. But when things are out-of-the-box, that makes things more exciting.
Like, for me, I love Mickey Mouse. I don’t know why, maybe it’s in my DNA as an Asian person, but I love it. I like him vintage, I like him cheap, I like him from Uniqlo. I don’t care. And sometimes, if I feel a certain way, I might want to throw that on.
Socks are another good example. I love a good sock detail. Be it intentional or not--matching your sweater to socks--very junior high--and I love that. If you have a nice suit on, make sure your sneakers are dirty. If you’re wearing ripped jeans, I love a nice shoe. I can’t tell you how many black and navy blazers I have. Every one of them is different to me. Throw it on, and all of a sudden you’re put together.
Dash and I recently both got our ears pierced. We did that after thinking about the idea of matching tattoos (kidding). I never allowed Dash to pierce her ears, I thought it was more punk rock if she didn’t. But then I buckled and gave in. I told her, you can pierce your ears if we do it together. And she listened to me. My kid listened to me. A miracle.
So that’s something external that can ignite sentiment and create comfort when she’s away.
It’s funny because I showed the bracelet Dash made when she was younger and she had no recollection of making it. But I asked her if she’d wear it again and she surprised me by saying: “yeah, totally.”
These bracelets remind of the ones dash would make at birthday parties, where everyone got together and strung these sweet plastic beads together. So I actually found one that Dash made when she was like, five. And it’s so reminiscent.
I don’t remember Dash bringing it home, but I remember the era. What’s so nice about that era is that, again, not overthinking it, you’re just making. Creating. You’re at the party having fun with your friends and you string the thing together. I just can’t believe I found it.