For our first interview on the blog, we are delighted to introduce you to Steve Koss. Steve grew up in Lake Orion and then served in the Air Force in North Carolina and Okinawa, where he studied Japanese language and the history of the Ryukyu Islands. He started taking pictures abroad to document what he saw overseas, and then continued studying photography at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit when he returned. Steve was a 2016 Documenting Detroit Fellow, during which time he created the series No Time to Worry. I spoke to Steve in light of Documenting Detroit's upcoming deadline for their 2017 fellowship, you can find out more about that here.
Tell us a little about your background, where did you grow up and how did you end up in Detroit?
I grew up in Lake Orion, and after a couple years in the Air Force, I came back to the area. I had a choice between majors to continue an Asian Studies degree, or continue with a growing passion for photography. I wound up choosing the photography, and attending CCS.
Tell us a bit about your recent body of work, No Time To Worry.
No Time to Worry, is a look at Detroit through a couple different nightclubs throughout the city. The work was really about exploring spaces, and the people who occupy them, touching on the various subcultures and communities that utilize the spaces. It is a mix of both 4x5 portraiture, and 35mm candid photographs.
Did you know the people in the photographs, or were they strangers?
They are of people I met while I was photographing. Sometimes I would have to ask if they would like to get a portrait taken, and I would tell them about what I was doing. Other times people would walk up, and take interest in what I was doing. The big camera, and large lighting set up would peak peoples interest a lot of the time.
How did you take these images (what camera, film, etc) and how does your process affect the resulting images?
I usually use film for most of my personal projects. Most of my ideation begins by choosing a medium, that way the medium becomes part of the process throughout the work. For No Time to Worry, 4x5, and 35mm film where the mediums of choice. The larger camera and strobe used definitely had an effect on how the portraits were made. For instance the photography is a much slower process, leaving more time for the photographer and subject to connect. It was also created out of the idea of slowing the subject down, and creating a sense of isolation, the kind you can only get in crowded spaces. Other projects like American Dream, instant film was used, as a way to speak to the instant candid photograph, and the idea of the snapshot that fills so many shoeboxes, scrapbooks, and photo albums in the U.S. Even now I’m working on a project that is all square, using 2 1/4 film.
How was your experience working with the Documenting Detroit fellowship program? How did it impact the final work?
Documenting Detroit was a great experience over the summer. They definitely had a big push in my continuation of 4x5 photography. Krissane Johnson, who was my mentor, had a large impact as well on the work, and made the contribution of me utilizing 35mm. I was feeling like something was missing with just the portraiture, and those candid photographs really helped to round out the environments. The intensive week was really an eye opening experience, and still has a large impact today. Also the community that has been created out of the fellows, and members is really supportive, and helps to connect people who all love, and see the value in photography.
Can you talk a bit about how you decided on the title of the project? It implies both crisis and comfort; either we have no time to worry because things are so bad we have to act, or we don’t need to worry because things are ok. How do you see it?
I named the price no time to worry because I was really looking at how bars and places like that work. When times are bad we go to bars and when times are good we still go to bars. The title is really about letting life fall away for a couple hours, whether things are good or bad.
How do you see these images in relation to other work you’ve made? Your past work seems to negotiate with the reality of an idealized American ideal. Many images are also composed in a way that obstructs us from entering the space. We can’t place ourselves within the landscape, often due to fences, highways, crops, etc. Where do you see your viewer in this work, or yourself, in this work?
I think a lot of my work is focused on symbols, and how meaning, is generated by culture, or a larger social subconscious. The work for Document Detroit is really looking at culture and places, and the symbols, and language, which not only creates an identity for that social environment, but also exists between everyone. A large intent of mine is to show not only the things that separate us, but also how those same things can connect us.
Photography has a long history of creating differences between people, and exploiting those differences. I hope that within my documentary work that connections can be made between subject and viewer, and that some understanding can be reached that we all live with the same basic emotions. The landscapes of the neighborhood in Hazel Park where I was living at the time were about connecting to memories and nostalgia. It’s really about the places that everyone has growing up. Landmarks that only kids create to navigate their neighborhoods. I wanted the viewer to connect with those, and remember their own places that have become their personal historical landmarks. That is why the scenes are devoid of time, and location, they are tiny sections that would otherwise have no true importance, much like the landmarks we create as children, and like memory you can never really enter again.
I see a similar comparison between your American Dream collages and your found objects in Detroit. One re-imagines past pictures from a jaded or satirical space, while the other is an almost scientific study of remnants in the isolated space of the studio. One is forwardly collage, while the other is a dis-assembly. What role do you see collecting and found imagery playing in your practice?
The still lifes of cut paper, that where then photographed for American Dream, where a way for me as an artist to touch on issues that I may not be able to speak to in any other way. The narratives created by the photographs came through playing, and seeing what would happen when ideas are contrasted. I created about 42 of them in total, some where aimed at specific ideas, like latent homosexuality caused by ideals in a society, or American dormancy when it comes to world politics, and the wars that our country is fighting/involved in. While others were about just being funny, and experimenting with symbols, tropes, and ideals of a culture. The found objects where more of a quick experiment looking at how we understand documentary photography. I have become more interested with exploring how we can tell stories visually that exhibit a truth without being what we normally think of when we hear the words documentary photography. I think there is a lot more freedom afforded to those working in the documentary film genre than there is for still photographers. Overall found imagery, and objects, just becomes a way to speak to larger ideas, without directly involving subjects.
How do you define the American Dream? And how healthy do you think it is in our current climate?
I think the American Dream exists, and it really isn’t so bad, who doesn’t want their own house? But you have to realize that is a constructed narrative. In the same way our idea of Santa is constructed from illustrations from Coca Cola. The American Dream as the baby boomers knew it, and some of my friends still subscribe too, is something that needs to be rethought. I think at some level the narrative is changing, but at the time whatever takes the place of the picket fence, or the big car, consumerism will be close behind.
What other photographers, artists, people or things influence you? Where do you find inspiration on a daily basis?
Well television and movies are always a big influence on me, especially because I hate and love it at the same time. I can always say Magnum too, but more specifically in photography Martin Parr, Walker Evans, Lewis Hine, Alec Sloth, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Eugene Smith, Joel Meyerowitz, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Ruth Thorne Thomsen, to name a few. Other than photographers, Errol Morris the Director, Henri Matisse. That’s just some people that I have found helpful. I think I find inspiration a lot by driving, this may sound bad, but it's this great way of being focused, and not being focused, it really helps to split my brain, giving it one activity, while the other half can kind of wonder in thought.
What drives you to live and make work in the Detroit area now?
I am still in school at CCS, so that makes staying here a little bit easier.
Finally, what advice do would you give to an aspiring photographer?
The most influential thing that I have realized by working with other photographers, and listening to them speak, is that no one actually knows what the hell they are doing. So don’t feel bad that you don’t know at the time either. Also, the old phrase still holds true today, F8 and be there, so keep a camera with you all the time, and just enjoy taking photographs of whatever. Those will probably be the ones that mean the most later on anyway.
To see more of Steve's work, contact, or follow him on social media, visit his website.