Portrait of Stephen Bivens by Jef Janis.

Whenever I was with Stephen Bivens, I always found myself doing most of the talking. Invariably, I would rewind conversations with him in my mind shortly after we spoke, and think to myself, “Wow, I sure do talk a lot.” And while it may be true that I enjoy talking, I found that there were many others who felt the same as I. It was just Stephen’s way. He was a gentle giant of few words, but he had a lot to say through his photographic lens and shy smile.

Stephen and his wife Jennifer lived in the apartment right next door to mine. In the summers, I would see him almost daily, usually catching him outside on our back stoop, smoking one of his signature cigars. Jen would join him, sitting on the stairs with a glass of wine, and this would normally inspire me to join them with a glass of bourbon. With our sins properly held in hand, the three of us would discuss everything from books to politics to the local art scene, and this latter conversation was of special significance to Stephen, who was a late bloomer to the arts.

Creek Bridge, a photo by Stephen Bivens, was taken in early Spring, 2020, in Collinwood near the lake at Wildwood Park, Euclid Creek Reservation. It appears in the exhibit Collinwood Now, on
view at Photocentric Gallery on Waterloo.

Photography was always a love of his, but it is not hyperbole to describe his full-time pursuit of the craft as a dream deferred. Right after high school, Stephen enlisted in the Marines and served in that branch of the armed forces for ten years. In 1996, he returned to Tampa Bay, where he was born and raised, and worked for both Time Warner and Progressive Insurance. He was transferred by Progressive to Cleveland, where he met Jennifer.

And then 2008 happened: He and Jennifer were married, they moved from Cleveland back to Tampa so that Stephen could be closer to his growing daughters—and then seemingly without warning, Stephen quit his full-time job altogether. The very same year they were married and moved to Tampa, Stephen pursued photography full time. I guess you could say that Jennifer brought out the art in him. In 2012, Stephen and Jen moved back to the city they both loved: Cleveland. And upon their return, Stephen dove headfirst into becoming an artist.

In 2016, Stephen was one of seven recipients of the North Collinwood neighborhood’s Ballot Box Project, where community residents voted for him to photograph local families, business owners, artists, and activists in the locations that most visibly revealed their connections to the North Collinwood neighborhood. In 2018, Stephen became an inaugural recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize Verge Fellowship. The following year, Stephen was appointed as Twelve Literary Arts’ photographer-in-residence and became a photographer for Cleveland 20/20: A Photo Exploration of Cleveland—a partnership between the Cleveland Public Library and The Cleveland Print Room designed to capture images of everyday Clevelanders in celebration of the Library’s 150-year anniversary. His work is currently on display at the Main Library’s Brett Hall through November. Bivens also taught photography to inner-city youth through The Cleveland Print Room. This was his greatest joy.

When you think about Stephen’s story, you might guess that maybe he just knew that his time on this earth would be short. But you’d be wrong. Life just happens the way it happens. And the time that Stephen spent as a full-time photographer, teacher, and husband, was probably the best time of a young life taken too soon at the age of 52. Stephen passed away on June 1 (God, I still can’t believe I’m typing this).

I miss my friend. And Cleveland, a city that in many ways was just getting to know the gentle giant of few words but an honest lens, will miss him too.

Rest in peace, my friend. I’ll see you on a stoop on the other side. And I’ll still probably be talking too much.