photo © Stephen Voss
Stephen Voss: Strong Opinions, Loosely Held
By Sherrie Berger
Stephen Voss’s work is truly impressive and especially relevant in this time. All eyes are on Washington, DC, in very new ways and with greater scrutiny. Everyone likes a peek behind the curtain of a life that is not familiar. For instance, working in Los Angeles with celebrities is a normal way of life, but the DC culture is a bit of a mystery and somewhat exotic to many.
Can you speak to your connection to APA, where you first discovered the organization and any other relevant connection you may have to them? I believe you had 3 images in the APA Awards last year (congrats!)
I learned about APA through a few members I knew from the local DC chapter. The events felt relevant to me and addressed a lot of the issues I face as a working photographer.
In today’s culture, your Instagram feed may be the first way people discover your work. I noticed a mix of formal portraiture, street style work and other images that just strike you as beautiful. It seems to be a way that you expand the way people get to know you and your work. Is that true? Can you discuss your choices and the way you “curate” your Instagram feed? Please highlight a selection of images and speak to them specifically if you can. Do you think of ‘work’ when you curate your feed or is it just personal expression (who are you aiming to entice if anyone?)
My Instagram feed has become more intentional over time, but I still struggle with what to actually share. If I have some great outtakes from a shoot that was just published, does it belong on Instagram, Facebook, my web site, a print/email promo or all/none of the above? Throwing every image across all platforms feels clumsy and annoying to people who might follow you in a few different places.
Early on, there was a casualness to the platform that made me comfortable sharing photos of my family, example 1, example 2, example 3 places I’ve been, example 1, example 2, example 3, and scenes from shoots that I thought were funny example 1, example 2
Even with those kinds of images, I’d be lying if I wasn’t thinking about what they suggested, their implication of something more that lets viewers fill in some carefully prescribed details about me.
For better or worse, it can function as a sounding board and an informal way to get feedback on work.
Is there more latitude when shooting a politician vs. a business person or less?
What is your process when psychologically preparing for conversation on set? Do you deliberately learn something about your subjects so you are prepared for small talk?
I'm not sure there's too much difference in photographing a politician vs. a business person, as it really comes down to the individual. Politicians do tend to be more comfortable in front of the camera, and for better or worse it can result in you getting "the pose" they strike whenever a camera is raised.
I tend to work with a small crew - very often just a single assistant. For assistants, I'm drawn to people who are unimpressed by fame and interested in both the craft and logistics of making good photos. It's incredibly important to me for someone to give off the right kind of energy on a shoot and to be a calm, low-key presence who is always proactively looking for ways to make things run smoothly.
One of the more deliberate steps I've taken in the last year is how I prepare for shoots. I used to take a sort of perverse pride in my ability to improvise and come up with an approach on the spot. After much reflection, I realized there was a lot of fear and insecurity embedded in this approach and my lack of preparation was how I avoiding confronting my fear of failure. It was much easier for me to not try and fail than to risk trying really, really hard at something and still failing.
It feels trite to say, but the better I've come to understand myself as a person and photographer, the better I'm able to make images with which I'm happy. When you start out as a photographer, you’re trying to absorb as much as possible around you, studying different photographer’s approach and style and trying to understand the “how” of their photos, and then the “why.” At some point, the work needs to turn inward, to figuring out what is important to you, what statement you want to make and how you want to present yourself to the world.
For my preparation these days, I do my research on the person and think about both where this photograph fits into the news of the day and how it might be viewed in the future, when looking back on this moment in time. I write notes to myself about the feelings I want to evoke in the image and I look to other places for inspiration. I print out photos and put them in my notebook for a shoot and have reference image libraries that I look at for more specific approaches.
During the shoot, I often think of the phrase, "Strong opinions, loosely held," as the right approach. The idea being that you should not give up on your idea about what you want from a shoot without a bit of fight, but you should also be quite ready to drop an approach and let the situation develop in a different direction. It can be a tenuous dance as you try to get some “safe” shots but not allow yourself to be closed off from letting a shoot take its own path.
After the shoot, I always do a quick debriefing where I note what worked and didn’t. Individually, these notes aren’t super helpful, but accumulated together, they help me identify some of the trends of what I need to be working more on, or being mindful of during a shoot.
First page of notes from Ben Rhodes shoot
And now the technical side. More so in your formal portraiture, you have a look, a signature so to speak. Would you like to expand on that theme? Do you disagree?
I've always admired photographers who can create new work that still fit into their oeuvre. I’ve been fortunate to be hired to shoot my “look”, and try to use those opportunities to probe the outer edges of my visual identity to see what I might find.
For having such a short time to shoot celebrated people you have managed some incredible lighting. What was your training for his lighting - with little time and small spaces? On the job vs formal training? How much of a crew do you bring with you to set up?
I have no formal training in lighting, or much education in photography itself. I have a degree in Computer Science and took two B&W darkroom courses in college. Learning to light was a slow process. Early on, I would spend a lot of time reverse-engineering the lighting of photographers I admired. Since then, it’s been learning on the job and trying to keep moving forward.
I began my career photographing for a weekly newspaper in Portland, Oregon and had the wonderful experience of being asked to photograph everything from restaurants to protests, politicians to farmers. When I moved to DC in 2005, I began getting a lot more portrait assignments from editors. I think the culture and pace of DC has shaped my approach to portraits, for better or worse. I work quickly and am always reminding myself to slow down and let my carefully planned ideas meander and develop.
DC is its own insular world to which I’ve been deeply linked now for over a decade, but as comfortable as I am in the halls of the Capitol, or scoping out a Senator’s office, my work benefits from still feeling a bit of an outsider to these places. I think if you get too comfortable in this world, you become a part of it and lose a critical eye, an ability to see through its artifice and custom.
Do you photograph the politicians the way you see them, the way they are publicly known, or the way you think they want to portray themselves? Is that a distinguishable point or do they run together?
My portraits are my own subjective, but informed take on a person, a sort of appraisal of them in that moment in time.
I’m very aware of how a subject is portrayed publicly. I’ll often watch videos of them speaking or being interviewed to get a sense of their mannerisms and body language and use that as a guidepost to direct them during the shoot if needed.
What else happens on set? Do you bring props or anything to help subjects relax - because that’s how they appear. Does that come from more than conversation and if so what is the method? Is there talk about what they do with their hands? What is an important item in your toolbox that helps save the day when things appear to be spiraling out of control, so to speak?
I want my subjects to feel like they’re been well taken care of, respected and heard on my shoots. That doesn’t mean that the result is a flattering portrayal of the person, but I try to come into the shoot as a honest broker. If the subject or their people suggest a setting or pose that they’ve been comfortable with in the past, I’m willing to try it (if time permits), as a show of goodwill. All that said, a subject’s comfort level is part of the equation of the shoot, but it’s not the final goal.
Is there anything that has surprised you about photographing politicians? Is that what you started out aiming to do? What came before?
I have a deep interest in politics and am intensely curious about people. When I came to DC, I spent the first few years on Capitol Hill covering press conferences, protests and hearings, mostly for news services. This helped me learn the rhythm of the place and gave me a good instinct for how news stories play out. I also had the great privilege of working alongside incredible photographers like David Burnett, Brooks Kraft and Christopher Morris who taught me so much in simply the way they probed the edges of an event and came back with images that didn’t look like anyone else’s.
photo © Stephen Voss
Can you speak to the role of hair and make-up on your shoots? Again many of us know the way that works for celebrity. How does that differ for business people and politicians? Same question for retouching?
Nearly all of my subjects come hair and makeup ready to the shoots. That said, I’ve photographed a lot of politicians who are charmingly indifferent to how they look. I retouch as needed and the level of retouching done depends quite a bit on the client expectations.
How much do you know about the content of the story in advance of the photo session? How might that influence you and your intention for the shoot? Can you talk about how much you reveal about your personal views (or don’t reveal) on your social media, on your website, at your shoots and elsewhere? It is a polarized time and we are all searching for commonality and community.
I’m usually brought in after at least the draft of a story has been turned in and I will always ask if there’s anything I can read before doing the shoot. Editors really vary on this front, with some giving me a directive along the lines of “do what you do,” to others who have more specific ideas about what they’d like to see from a shoot.
I don’t think photographs that run with a story need to match the words as much as achieve a sort of rhyme with them. A great photo and story work together in harmony, playing off each other to add color and nuance to the reader’s understanding of the subject.
I share very little of my personal views in any public way and have no desire to do so. I’m after a good photo, full stop.
Read more about Stephen Voss and his photo session with Michelle Obama here