Midway through a yearlong project to take one picture every day, local photographer Stephen Levin stopped worrying that he would give up or miss a day.
“It’s easy to have an excuse not to take a picture,” says Levin. “If you go out with the equipment and your eyes open, you’ll find something.”
Take, for example, his last photo of the year. Levin wanted to do something momentous, something that would bring the project to a close with a bang. He considered a photograph involving champagne glasses for New Years, but decided that was too cheesy.
Then, while out to breakfast with his wife and grandsons, he found the perfect image. Following behind the two boys as they walked hand in hand, Levin snapped a photo just as the older boy leaned down to smile at his younger brother, face turned ever so slightly toward the camera.
“I really like that one,” says Levin, who works at Northwestern and lives in Riverwoods. “It’s very satisfying when you take something and say to yourself, ‘I really like it.’”
Levin started his project on January 1, 2012, as a creative exercise for himself and as a test of discipline. Although photography has been his passion for decades, he’s mostly done it on the side, as a hobby or for the occasional freelance assignment.
Currently, he works full-time as a lecturer and staff member at Northwestern University’s Kapnick Business Institutions Program, and previously, he spent more than 20 years working at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Looking back on the 366 photographs he took, Levin says he learned a lot—about himself, about photography and also about people. He learned that he was disciplined enough to complete the yearlong assignment, tested new compositional styles and photography equipment, and discovered that on the whole, most people were open to his project and willing to be subjects.
“We have these preconceptions about people, that people don’t want to participate, don’t want to be in a photograph,” he says. “But I had no one say no.”
At first, Levin was often embarrassed to approach someone out of the blue, asking to take their picture. Now, he says, he doesn’t even think twice.
“I always say, ‘I’m not going to do anything offensive or disrespectful. I want to make you look good,’” he explains. Often, just as he was ready to take a photograph of a scene, someone walked into the frame—like the skater who posed outside an illuminated sign in downtown Glencoe, or the student riding her bike toward the setting sun on Northwestern’s campus.
Levin shot most of his images with a digital single-lens reflex camera or his iPhone. While he prefers the control a full-size camera provides, the iPhone gave him flexibility, allowing him to test an idea he’d later shoot with his camera, he says. He uploaded one image to his website every day. It now features all 366.
For now, Levin isn’t planning to display the images in a gallery or turn them into a commercial book. He is, however, working on a book of the images to keep for himself. And while he isn’t planning to continue taking photos every day for the next year, Levin says he could imagine doing the project again—with one difference.
“If I do it again, I’m going to do a blog with the photos, rather than put them on a website,” he says. “As you can tell, I have a story for every picture, and I didn’t realize that until I started.”
Those stories are as much about finding something unexpected and intriguing as they are about using certain techniques. While visiting family in Denver, for example, Levin took a drive in the foothills, camera in hand, planning to take a picture of the mountains. When he spotted a trailer selling hamburgers and hotdogs, however, he pulled to a screeching halt by the side of the road.
Levin spent the next ten minutes taking photos of the proprietor in action. The final image shows the man staring gruffly at the camera from behind a row of hot sauce bottles.
“He didn’t pose, but I caught him in the pose,” Levin says. “I didn’t force him into doing something that he wasn’t doing.”
While he often captured something unexpected, Levin says taking a good photo involves more preparation than luck. That’s how he shot the image of a bee close up, flying just millimeters above a flower at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re lucky to get that bee,’” he says. “It wasn’t an accident. I was focusing on the leaf, and I saw that bees were taking off and landing.”
Levin carried his camera with him at all times, and many of his photographs were taken around the north suburbs, at places Levin visits regularly or passed on his drive from home to the Northwestern campus.
Several are shot in Glencoe, where Levin snapped photos once a week while his wife led a book group. One cold September evening, he walked down the long path to the water’s edge in the dark. There was no one else on the beach, and the light from a sodium vapor lamp cast a yellow glow over the sand and the pier.
“I was out there all by myself, and it was blustery and it was cold—it was really cold—and I was thinking, no one else has got this picture,” he says.
“Would I have done that without the project? No. That’s what the project did.”
“I would encourage everyone to do this, I don’t care if you’re interested in photography or not, because of what you learn about yourself and people and the space around you,” he says. “This became something much bigger than I thought it would be.”
To see all of Levin’s photos, visit his website, http://smlevin.smugmug.com/.