Dialogues With Great Photographers – Stephen Wilkes

Holden Luntz Gallery
Dec 23, 2020 6:40PM

Since opening his studio in New York City in 1983, Stephen Wilkeshas built an unprecedented body of work and a reputation as one of America’s most iconic photographers, widely recognized for his fine art, editorial and commercial work. In this interview, Wilkes, a self-proclaimed collector of moments, talks about his series entitled, Day to Night™. These images masterfully capture the transition from day to night in one comprehensive image. He began the series in 2009 and has worked diligently to document some of the world’s most beautiful places. Having photographed the Tournelle Bridge in Paris, Stonehenge in England, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and the Serengeti in Africa, Wilkes has created a body of work that appeals to a collective memory. We have conducted a series of discussions with many of the contemporary photographers that we represent. They are original interviews that cannot be found anywhere else. Photographers' motivations and personal insights can increase the viewer's appreciation of their work, so it is our pleasure to share these with you!


Pisani – What tradition of photography do you see yourself coming from? Photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Gjon Mili used motion as part of their aesthetic, would you consider them an influence?

Wilkes – I’ve been forever interested in how the act of photographing and the evolution of the medium of photography is constantly changing through innovation. One of the things I like to say is that when you innovate, it’s because you have a real deep understanding of history and a profound appreciation for new technology, and that’s what I do. I find that my work is in that middle area, where it’s a deep embrace of the medium’s history. Still, I’m forever fascinated and curious by the new things that are developing technology-wise, which helped me tell stories.

In all the history of the medium, the photographers that I admire most and have inspired me are Daguerre, Henry Fox Talbot, Eadweard Muybridge, Egerton, and certainly Gjon Mili. Everyone from Steichen to Stieglitz to Ansel Adams, I think all of these photographers were innovators in their way. They created and used the medium and innovated using technology to amplify their vision; that’s what I’m interested in doing.

I want to create photographs that give people a visceral experience of what I see.

The other thing that’s very influential to me are actually painters; I find myself drawn to the history of painting. I’m drawn into the world of Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. He certainly established so much of my scale and my narrative storytelling in Day to Night. Hieronymus Bosch. Those are early painting influences. And as I’ve grown over the years, I’ve become deeply immersed in the Hudson River school painters, and in particular, Albert Bierstadt. And if we’re going to list inspirations, certainly my mentor Jay Maisel was a great inspiration.

Pisani – Your work has an approach to art that ties your concerns with aesthetics and technology. There is a specific process for creating photographs that seek innovation using technology. What is your relationship with science, and how has it affected your work?

Wilkes – Well, I always like to say that Day to Night is a melding of science and art together. Part of what I do is think about the concept of time and our relationship to time. And even on a scientific level, thinking about how Einstein describes the space-time continuum. As I began to explore this work, I realized that I could, using this new technology Photoshop, begin to merge, not just a single image but hundreds of images together, and have those images tell a story that was not only relative to what I witnessed in a specific place at a moment in time but also captured a various amount of time throughout the day and into the night.

So that became the drive to create this work in a way that was based on this fascination that we had this vast technical shift when digital photography was invented. I’ve always been willing to stick my foot in the pond when something new came out.

I always say I was blessed to learn analog photography and master photographing with a view camera, large-format transparency film. When I did my Ellis Island series, I developed this transparency zone system to create those photographs. I think I could never have done Day to Night without having that level of analog mastery for this series.

Pisani – As you describe, your process sometimes involves you being 40 ft up in the air on a crane for 24 to 36 hours. How do you handle the physical challenges required to make your images?

Wilkes – One of the things about doing this work is that I have to have peak physical energy to stand for anywhere from 24 to 36 hours, but then the mental energy to stay focused for that period of time. I’ve described it to people; it almost becomes a form of deep meditation. When you sit and stare at a place for anywhere from 24 to 36 hours, you begin to isolate everything around you. Your focus becomes so narrow, in the sense of what it is you’re looking at.

One of the things about this work is that my ability not only to see what’s in front of me, to react to what happens in front of my lens but at the same time think about the puzzle that is going on inside my head. So, I’m working almost on two different levels. On one level, I’m bearing witness to try and capture specific moments that are happening as time moves through the frame—at the same time thinking about how is the time going to transition here? Do I have the right cloud in that position? What happens when the crowd of people separates? Do I have that moment where I cannot transition time again? So, it is a real-time puzzle that’s going on in my mind.

A part of what I do is I’m living with this image that’s in my mind. I’m driven by wanting to make that the reality of what I’m seeing. This act of visualization is something that just comes from decades of photographing. Ansel Adams described it best; you reach a point where the image is in your mind’s eye. When you see an image in your mind and then its: how do I translate it into a photographic print? If you photograph for long enough eventually and you look at the world long enough and deep enough, you begin to have a connection like that where you see something it’s in your mind, and it becomes a transference of an experience.

Pisani – Your working method involves culling a considerable number of different pictures to create one composite photograph; how do you go about choosing and editing which moments you will include in your series out of the hundreds of individual moments you capture?

Wilkes – As I photograph, my eye moves as time moves. Then, as I shoot, I’ll see very specific moments and I’ll mark that. We have a very clear color-coded and numerical system that marks certain frames based on what I consider their importance in how I’ve seen various things throughout the day and into the night. I then go back to my studio, and I will spend about a month of time, editing, these pictures. On average, I’ll shoot anywhere from 1200 to take 2200 single frames.

I have to go back in because my eye was focused on one area, but I might have missed something that happened. Again, because my work has such scope and scale, there are multiple things frequently happening and your eye can only focus on so many things in one given moment. So, part of my process as a photographer is to rediscover my work as I edit, and that’s why it takes about a month to edit one Day to Night photograph.

Pisani – Your photographs, which collect some of the most exciting moments of the day, compress time into one frame. The composition of details can seem random, like images we see while dreaming during sleep, recollecting our best memories, and playing them back for us to re-live. Do you feel your work connects to dreams or perhaps an alternative reality?

Wilkes – I don’t think my work relates to dreams, so much as memory. I think my work is really about memory, in a sense, because I try to explore memory on two levels. One is, I am always drawn to places that I call iconic. Things that are part of our collective memory, so that there’s a familiarity intuitively, when you look at one of my photographs. It feels familiar, yet it’s completely different than anything you’ve ever seen. So, if I do that well, then this familiarity gives me an entrance to you.

I’m exploring that almost unconscious familiarity with a place. Then what I begin to explore is this idea that, as we look at time, we all have had a connection to a place. You may have seen it; you may have walked through Central Park during a snowstorm. Suddenly, that’s when you see my Day to Night of Central Park Snow, it speaks to you. You remember maybe when the World Trade Center collapsed, and you’ve seen the 911 Memorial lights and you’ve walked in New York City and you’ve been there on the day when the memorial lights are up. So, when you see my Day to Night at the Flatiron Building, you have a connection to that moment, you know what that feels like. I choose the places I choose based on memory, and the way I execute the photograph accesses memory in a way.

People say in photography, “Oh, I don’t want to shoot that because that’s been shot to death.” I embrace that. To me, that makes it part of our collective memory. If everybody’s seen it, then it’s already become part of our collective memory, and that’s where I start. In a way, that’s a great challenge. Also, when you look at the idea of what an artist is, it’s a risk-reward ratio.

I love that risk of jumping into that space and seeing, can I create something that nobody’s seen? That everybody’s familiar with? That’s where it starts.

Pisani – You mentioned in one of your interviews that in college, you were able to travel to China and work on photography during the trip. Do you think traveling across the world, from New York to China so early in your career, affect your vision and what could be possible with the pursuit of photography?

Wilkes – The China work started my ability to focus on what I described as bodies of work. So, as a young photographer, I recognized that you had to define your vision so people could notice you. It’s just such a natural thing, like any artist. You want to be able to say, this is who I am; this is what I do and, in a way, have people look at your work and go well that’s a Stephen Wilkes or whoever it is. You want your work to speak to who you are as an artist. I felt as a young photographer in college that already I had been shooting pictures since I was 12, so by the time I was 19, I was pretty focused; I knew I’ve been doing this for a long time.

So, I knew that this was a moment for me career-wise, where I felt like I wanted to create a body of work that I could begin to show people because I wanted to do this for a living. The China project came about, and I think it defined my vision in a way.

But for me to go there, as this young photographer, it was just a visual feast for me. I just dived in headfirst, never looked back, and remember coming back with those pictures and looking at them now; I still think that they still have weight today. So even as a 19-year-old photographer, the work I did then, I’m still proud of those pictures. I show them regularly. Because I think as a photographer, those early years, those formative years, you don’t change as photographers; we evolve as photographers. I think my early work showcases that. It shows very much, all the things that I’m interested in photographically, all the themes that I’m somewhat connected to now.

Pisani – How do you think you evolved as a photographer when you went back a second time to China? And how would you describe the difference between those two experiences?

Wilkes – I went back because I’d heard that China had had this radical change over the 27 years since I’d been there. I wanted to go back and see what my memory of China was versus the reality of what China had become. It was a unique moment because I was shooting 4 x 5; I had changed my photography style.

When I did China in 1979, I was a 35mm street photographer, that’s what I did. I never worked on a tripod; I didn’t do anything like that. Whenever I saw a moment, everything I did was bang, bang, bang; I was moving very quickly, very fluidly. As I started to get to more and more work and evolve photographically and started embracing and trying new things, I kept wanting to make pictures that had more information, more detail. I found that detail for me meant stories; the more detail I had, the deeper the story could be.

So, as I started to photograph in 4 x 5, my methodology started changing. The frame became even more sacred than it was even when I shot with 35mm. I also realized that I could be more patient, and I could think a little more and slow down my process. So, when I went back 27 years later to China, I started to reflect. Now I wanted to look at it and go deeper. I wanted to take single pictures that engaged the viewer in a much more meaningful way. And also, I could expand on some of the stories that I was seeing. That was a gift in a way. To be able to come back to a place, rediscover it, and know that your craft had evolved, with your time away, and that’s what happened for me.

Pisani – Referring back to the origins of your “Day to Night” series, you had mentioned before that LIFE magazine sent you on assignment to capture the cast of the 1996 film, Romeo & Juliet. It is here where you encountered your aha! moment for the start of the “Day to Night” series. Can you talk more about this time in your career?

Wilkes – Well, I think the seed for this concept started in 1996. When I was commissioned by LIFE magazine to pay homage to a photographic series done in the 1940s, it was called The Big Picture. It’s when they’d send the LIFE magazine photographer out to photograph, some big Hollywood film, and they would photograph, not just the stars but the entire cast and crew in one photograph. And so, LIFE contacted me, and they said: “would you be interested in paying homage to this? We’d like you to create a panoramic gatefold, a multiple page gatefold.” So, the image was going to be very horizontal to go across three pages. They said: “We want you to photograph Baz Luhrmann’s film Romeo and Juliet.” So, I got to Mexico City, and as soon as I walked on the set, I realized, Houston, we have a problem.

The set was a square, and I’m thinking how in the world am I going to make a square into a three-page gatefold panoramic shot. You know, I never had any thoughts about, well, I’ve got the whole cast and crew, but to capture the entire set, it became very challenging. At that moment in history, David Hockney was doing this fantastic series called photo-collages. Here he was exploring the idea of taking hundreds of images, just turning the camera and moving it sequentially the way your eyes sort of blinks as you turn your head, and then pasting them all together and creating this photo collage. I could take the square that I saw with my eye and open it into this big horizontal panoramic shape. And so that’s what I did.

Stephen Wilkes, Romeo and Juliet movie set

I had Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the center of my photograph, and I had them embracing, so they’re literally holding each other’s arms together. The cast and crew are behind them. As I pan the camera, I shot over 250 single images of this picture. As I got to the right side of the set, and everybody’s standing still, I see this huge mirror, reflecting on the set in the mirror is Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. And I said: just for this one-moment guys, could you just kiss? I don’t know why I had this idea, but I did, and I had them kiss in the reflection.

And so, when I came back to New York, and I put this whole thing together, I looked at it and said oh my god, because as a single image once it was all pasted together, I realized I was changing time and a photograph.

That concept stayed with me for 16 years until Photoshop did make my dreams a reality. I have massive respect for Hockney, but I never wanted to do it by hand. Everything is too spontaneous for me. I want to work quickly, which was a little too much hand labor for me. Still, the idea of being able to do that seamlessly 16 years later attracted me. I think the concept suddenly changed my perception of what a photograph could be.

I think where I’ve evolved the work is by creating time vectors and working on what Einstein describes as this idea of a grid and how time gets warped. It’s a fabric that gets warped by gravitational fields. For me, I look at time as a fabric as well. I take that fabric, and I flatten it into a two-dimensional flat photograph, and the time vectors, on the X, Y, or Z-axis, those are the things that allow me to change the time that way, throughout my photograph. So, it’s been this exciting and deeply gratifying experience to explore this concept over the last ten years.

Pisani – At the beginning of the series, you started shooting New York but then took it worldwide, shooting cityscapes and the national parks. Out of all the ones you shot, was there one Day to Night that pushed you into the direction you’re in now, as far as conservation, wildlife?

Wilkes – Yeah, the one for sure was the Serengeti photograph that I did. That was the one that was the game-changer. That was the one that allowed me to see that over 26 hours, I photographed a watering hole in the middle of the Serengeti. This location was not a reserve; it was, quite frankly, the epicenter for wildlife in the middle of the Seronera, where I was photographing. I watched over a 26-hour period; all these animals share a watering hole during a five-week drought that was going on. They never even grunted at each other. They just seemed to understand something almost like it was a hidden form of communication, that we human beings aren’t connected to or privy to in a way. I watched as they shared this one resource water, the water that we’re supposedly going to have wars over during the next, you know, 20 to 50 years.

The animals seem to get this message that when it comes to water, everybody gets a drink, everybody gets a chance to bathe, everybody gets to share this one resource. You get out of the water, get into the field, you’re fair game, but when it comes to water, everybody gets to share this thing. That had a profound effect on me; I don’t think I’d ever experienced anything like that, and I certainly never thought if you had told me that story that I would witness something like this, I’d say yeah, you’re dreaming, but I witnessed it. When you witness something like that, it changes you. I realized that telling that story in a photograph and the effect that that photograph had overall when people started seeing that image.

Pisani – You touched on this briefly but do you see an end to the “Day to Night” series? Do you see it having a point of conclusion? This series has been your main body of work for the last ten years. Do you see it reaching a point where you can stop and see it as a complete body of work, and can you think of what might come next?

Wilkes – I’m winding it down for sure. I think that’s fair to say, not because I don’t love what I do, I do love doing it, but I feel like there are other things that I want to explore also as an artist. So I feel like this current series that I’m working on, endangered species and habitats, will be taking me through the next several years to complete that body of work. Once I do that, I never say never, but I think I’m going to be moving into some other areas that I’m interested in exploring.

Photography is an evolution for me. While I may not do specifically do Day to Night, there will be some new component potentially in some of the areas I’m exploring, working in new media and new platforms to tell the story of endangered species and habitats.

Pisani – With photography’s historical role as a journalistic tool, able to record the world’s most influential events, does your work relate to the contemporary emphasis on environmental or social concerns? Is this a primary emphasis for you?

Wilkes – I think that 50 or 100 years from now, people will look at these photographs, the Day to Night photographs in particular, and we’ll have a window into the way we lived and how it looked and how it felt. That as an artist, that is gratifying; you can create what will hopefully be a unique record of how we lived and what the earth felt like, what wildlife looked like, and what an epic migration looked like.

Because one of the things I’ve learned in doing this series is that, you know, I did that photograph on the Tournelle Bridge with Notre Dame in the background, and when I made that photograph, in my wildest dreams, I never thought that Notre Dame would almost be burned down to the ground. You don’t know when things are becoming history until they become history. I mean even my New York series, people look at my early New York stuff, and they say, “wow they’re that many cabs in New York then?” and I go yeah there were things called yellow cabs, and they were really popular. That was before Uber, and so there’s this dramatic change that goes on.

I do feel that there is a historical role, and I think my work is going to amplify my deep social and environmental concerns. That’s really where my focus is right now, and I think that’s the story we have to tell. We’ve got to communicate somehow what’s happening and inspire people to make real change in their lives and take action.

Pisani – Your career spans decades in the photography industry; what have you seen as limitations or shortcomings working with photography? And how has this changed over time in terms of changes in technology and your growth as an artist?

Wilkes – Well, I’ve always felt that the photograph is something that burns in your memory. I mean, you can look at momentous events in world history, where they might have a videotape of something, and then there is a still photograph, and the thing you remember is always the still photograph. I’ve always felt the medium has a unique place in our social consciousness because of that, and I’ve always felt that it’s a gift as a storyteller when you can tell a story in a single photograph. That’s just a very powerful tool.

I guess if there are shortcomings, one of the things I had the experience of last year while creating my first documentary feature called Jay Myself. In making the film, what I loved about making a film that was different than a still photograph was, I had this ability almost to sprinkle certain themes throughout the movie. Then, after you leave, a day or two later, you would see something maybe, and suddenly you make a connection to what you saw in the movie and what message cut across to you. That’s the power of filmmaking in a way. It has these beautiful and multiple ways in which you can access someone’s subconscious. A photograph has to do it all at once; it’s like you look at the picture and bang, that’s it.

One of the things I try to do in my photographs is that limitation of the single moment doesn’t exist in Day to Night because I can show you multiple moments. As a result, I get into multiple stories, multiple experiences that I felt, and I want to share with you. The act of looking at my pictures becomes, every time you see it and look at it, you might discover something new in it. Not every photograph does that. Not every work of art does that.

I’ve always felt that’s the art I love the most is the art that gives you something fresh and new every time you look at it.

Pisani – How do you see your different projects connecting? Your different series traveling around the world and Ellis Island, California One, and Bethlehem Steel, Do you see them all as feeding into each other? How have those projects influenced to Day to Night?

Wilkes – I think all of my work over the last few decades has essentially been the fertilizer that allows me to do Day to Night. I started as a street photographer; when you look back at my China work and all the things I did in those days, I worked obviously as a commercial photographer. I had to learn how to master craft, deliver on a given day, make a picture, and make a great moment. I like to say there’s the act of photographing; it’s what you see, what you can react to, and grab, and that’s really just taking a picture, but then as a commercial photographer, you have to learn how to make a picture. Those are two different hats to wear, but I think the ability to do both those things helped me as an artist.

As an artist, that became a benchmark for me. Each of the things I’ve done, whether Ellis Island or Bethlehem Steel or my series on China, America in Detail, California One, all of these bodies of work have all played specific elements in my development as a photographer and as a storyteller.

Day to Night has become this synthesis of all the things that I did over the last decades of photographing where I have figured out this wonderful; I describe it as my primordial soup, it’s everything I love about the medium of photography. At the core of it, it is the joy I have in the act of seeing and the act of looking. When you get to feel what I felt when I looked at that scene, as an artist, it doesn’t get any better than that, where you can feel that emotional delight or charge or sense of awe that I feel when I’m in some of these places, and I photograph.

Pisani – In your photographs, you have some incredible landscape images that have been reproduced as covers for magazines like TIME, National Geographic, and more work used for promotional purposes, including the hugely popular Stranger Things Netflix series. Can you talk about your sponsorships or collaborations with organizations?

Wilkes – I’ve been blessed over the years; I’ve had some wonderful editors come into my life and work with me and trust me. I think trust is a big word when you have collaboration. As you evolve as a photographer and an artist, you create relationships. I like bringing ideas to a lot of these magazines, TIME, and National Geographic, which have always been fans of my work. I’ve been fortunate enough to do some exciting series and projects with both of them.

When you get to work commercially, what happens is one of the interesting aspects of the medium. As I’ve evolved as more of a fine artist and done more of my work, I get hired to do my own work. The Stranger Things campaign was based on my Day to Night work, and that sensibility of Ellis Island, the kind of spirit photographs have is that there’s an emotional charge in some of my work, and I think that spoke to the teams there. All of these things have been a great experience for me, and they’ve enriched me in a way.

The point is that your work is only as deep as you are. I always try to enrich my life in many varied ways. That includes being blessed with two great children and trying to share experiences with a multitude of different friends in my life who all have different careers.

I would think in the end, if somebody said to me, why do you look? You look because of all those connections that happened through your life experiences; I think that’s what makes you look at certain things, or why you stopped to look. It’s much deeper than just a passive experience. But when you see, you see because you know there’s the moment of intersection between what your life experiences are and what’s just in front of you.

Stephen Wilkes Portrait

Since opening his studio in New York City in 1983, photographer Stephen Wilkes has built an unprecedented body of work and a reputation as one of America’s most iconic photographers. Wilkes is widely recognized for his fine art, editorial, and commercial work.

Wilkes’ early career interpretations of Mainland China, California’s Highway One, and impressionistic “Burned Objects” set the tone for a series of career-defining projects that catapulted him to the top of the photographic landscape.

Day to Night, Wilkes’ most defining project, began in 2009. These epic cityscapes and landscapes, portrayed from a fixed camera angle for up to 30 hours capture fleeting moments of humanity as light passes in front of his lens over the course of full day. Blending these images into a single photograph takes months to complete.

Day to Night has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning as well as dozens of other prominent media outlets. With a grant from the National Geographic Society, the series was recently extended to include America’s National Parks in celebration of their centennial anniversary and Bird Migration for the 2018 Year of the Bird.

Wilkes photographs belong to the collections of the George Eastman Museum, James A. Michener Art Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Dow Jones Collection, Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation, Jewish Museum of NY, Library of Congress, Snite Museum of Art, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Museum of the City of New York, 9/11 Memorial Museum and numerous private collections. His editorial work has appeared in, and on the covers of, leading publications. These include the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Time, Fortune, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and many others.

Wilkes’ extensive awards and honors include the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography, Photographer of the Year from Adweek Magazine, Fine Art Photographer of the Year 2004 Lucie Award, TIME Magazine Top 10 Photographs of 2012, Sony World Photography Professional Award 2012, Adobe Breakthrough Photography Award 2012 and Prix Pictet, Consumption 2014. His board affiliations include the Advisory Board of the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications; Save Ellis Island Board of Directors, on which he served for 5 years; and the Goldring Arts Journalism Board.

Holden Luntz Gallery