Personal Projects: Stephen Voss talks about his “91 Days” project

Stephen Voss, a photographer based in the Washington DC area, announced a personal project earlier this year called 91 Days. For the 91 days of spring he would make one 4×5 instant picture a day in his backyard and send it to those who sent in an email asking to reserve a day. I was one of the lucky 91 to receive a picture (this one). There’s an archive of all 91 days at the project’s tumblr site.

The project interests me for a number of reasons: it’s worlds away from Voss’s other work, it incorporates older technology with social media ideas, the limitations of the project force the photographer toward creativity and innovation, and the whole undertaking is a fleeting affair (none of the photos will be together ever again except in the digital record).

I asked Voss a few questions about the project:

dvafoto: 1. Are you a flower photographer now?

Stephen Voss: No, though when I first started taking pictures, I was convinced I was going to be a nature photographer like John Shaw. Thankfully, photojournalism intervened.

2. Since you aren’t a nature photographer, why undertake a project like this? What’s the value (monetary, emotional, publicity, whatever) of these photographs? Do photographs need to have value?

This project came out of my feeling a little burnt-out on the editorial photography I had been doing at the time, and a real desire to work on something that would challenge me to be creative every single day. I also was interested in creating something unique, then giving it away, without expectations. Shooting instant film produces a single, non-repeatable image, so every print I made was the only copy of that picture that will ever exist.

Lastly, one thing I’ve learned about the way I take photos is that I tend to exhaust all visual possibilities when taking pictures and sort out what’s good later. I think this has made me a little bit lazy, visually-speaking. With the rigor and process of 4×5, I hoped this project would challenge this way of working and hopefully make me do a bit more of my thinking before I released the shutter.

3. What has the response been?

It’s been good. I’ve received some nice notes from recipients of the prints though honestly just sending them out has been the most satisfying part of this project. I’m very protective of my digital images- backing them up in multiple places, etc. and there’s something really freeing about making a picture, mailing it out, and only being left with a crappy 800px wide scan.

4. Who is getting these pictures?

The prints have gone to eight different countries, including to a product engineer at Leica in Solms. I’m waiting for an M9 to arrive as a thank you.

5. What’s the goal of the project?

On one level, it’s just about creating something, then giving it away. But probably more importantly, the goal was to create a structure and series of limitations under which I could be creative every day. I think freedom and limitless choices are the death knell of my creativity, and the more constraints I have to work under, the more creative I can be.

6. What’s the importance of personal projects to you, as a pretty successful working photographer?

Personal projects are my little photo laboratory where I try to break things and blow stuff up. What hopefully emerges out of lots of bad photographs and failed experiments is some subtle changes regarding how I look at the world and a fine-tuning of what I pay attention to.

7. How does the project relate to the rest of your work?

Most of the work I’ve been shooting for myself recently hasn’t had any people in it, and despite my love and deep attachment to documentary photography, I sometimes wonder if this is the kind of work I’m better suited to.

8. You’re pretty successful with magazine portraiture…are you typecast? If yes, does that bother you?

I don’t think I’m typecast, but I do shoot a lot of portraits these days and most of my documentary work is self-funded, like my Gulf Coast work (here and here) and all my China work has been entirely self-funded. With that said, I’ve had some great opportunities over the last year to work on pure documentary stories for The Wall Street Journal, Stern and the Guardian among others.

9. What’s your next project?

I’ve been working on a series of photos about closed car dealerships. I’ve also been walking around the border of Washington, DC, where I live, and documenting the boundaries and people. Neither has any real end in sight, but they’ve been filling up my days when I’m not shooting for clients.

10. Whose work or what projects have been getting you excited lately?

I’ve been looking at Stephen Shore‘s work after my wife got me Uncommon Places for my birthday. Also, Simon Norfolk, Mark Steinmetz, William Gedney, and Tim Davis.

Be sure to check out Stephen Voss’s portfolio and blog, which often offers a good look behind the scenes of editorial work, such as in this recent post about making an anonymous portrait.

One Response to “Personal Projects: Stephen Voss talks about his “91 Days” project”

  1. Personal Projects: Stephen Voss talks about his “91 Days” project | dvafoto | The Click

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