A close-up shot of the bright pink wheel on a bicycle. A skateboarder in black and white, clowning for the camera. A lonely looking house, apparently in the middle of nowhere. A little boy, breaking into a toothy grin.
For the past 160 days, Stephen Levin has taken a photograph every single day.
He’ll keep up the pace for the next 206.
“I carry my camera with me pretty much everywhere,” he says. “You never know when you’re going to find something.”
Levin, 61, is midway through a project to take one picture every day for a year. A lecturer in 's Kapnick Business Institutions Program, Levin hasn’t missed a day yet. He came up with the project as a creative exercise for himself, and as a test of discipline.
“That was the whole point, to be disciplined,” says Levin, who was a trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for more than 20 years. “Good day, bad day, in the mood, not in the mood.”
Levin shoots with his Canon digital single lens reflex camera, or, just as often, with his iPhone, where he’s stockpiled dozens of apps for taking or manipulating a photograph.
“You look at things differently when you’re shooting with your phone,” Levin says. “I think that the creative side of the iPhone helps me become more creative with my regular camera.”
Often, Levin finds inspiration on the route from his home in Riverwoods to Northwestern University, where he also serves as program coordinator for the business institutions program.
The sight of a dress hanging in a store window at Green Bay Road and Central Street provided one such opportunity. Captivated by the way the colors looked at night in the incandescent light, Levin pulled over, took out his iPhone and crouched down to shoot the dress from below, keeping his reflection out of the photograph.
Once he had the image, Levin used multiple different apps to manipulate the picture, beefing up the color so that in the final version the dress almost shimmers and appears to float, unmoored by any hangers or pins.
“When I get a new app, I spend probably 10 or 15 minutes getting used to and knowing its abilities,” he says. “I very rarely go for a straight photograph with the iPhone.”
Levin shoots every photograph with a final effect in mind, knowing he might want to use an app to make the image look more retro, to add a vignette-style border, or to pump up the color—as he did, for example, with a close-up of the wheel of a pink Schwinn bicycle he saw at the Evanston lighthouse.
“I was coming up the steps from the beach, and I saw the bike there, and the pink was really pretty,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Can I make that pink even more vibrant?’”
While playing around with apps has stretched his creativity, the greatest thing he has gained from the project is the confidence to shoot what he wants without feeling self-conscious, Levin says.
“I’ve been out with photographers and they’ve said, ‘Gee, I wish I had the nerve to go up to that person and take their photo,’” he says. “I used to be that way, too.”
One night, for example, he saw a man lying in the street in front of the Chicago Theater. Levin set up his tripod and began snapping away.
“Even though I wasn’t talking to him, I was like three feet away, he knew I was taking his picture,” Levin says. “He was talking on his cell phone, so it’s not like he didn’t see me.”
Another day, Levin approached the doorman at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel. Levin told him he liked the look of the building’s lights and that he would like to take a photo of the doorman in front of the lights.
“If you walk up to somebody, you can tell if they’re open,” Levin says, explaining that he tries to choose subjects who seem approachable. In fact, he and the doorman at the Palmer House talked for about ten minutes before and after Levin shot the photograph, and the doorman even asked him to get together for coffee.
“Each picture is like a little story,” Levin says. “It’s an interesting life experience.”
At the end of the year, he plans to put his photographs together into a book for himself. As for taking a picture every day?
“I doubt if I’ll do this again,” he says. “It’s hard, it’s one of those things you like doing, but it’s not something that’s just automatic.”
For now, however, he’s got 206 days and 206 photos left to take. And each one of those is an opportunity to find the magic in the mundane.
Recently, Levin was picking up pizza at Lou Malnati’s, when an old wooden structure by the train tracks caught his eye. The black and white image he shot makes the house look like it’s plunked down in the middle of nowhere, a ramshackle railroad depot in a vast stretch of empty, windblown prairie, perhaps.
“If you could look to the left of that scene is Green Bay Road, with a lot of cars going back and forth, but I cropped that off,” Levin says. “I got close enough so that everything disappeared.”