Photographer Profile - Stephen Wilkes: "We were taught that photography is about capturing the single moment, but now we don't have to do that."

By David Schonauer   Tuesday February 2, 2016

In the long-ago year 2000, with the world poised on the brink of a new millennium and photography on the cusp of a new technological era, Stephen Wilkes  created one of the projects he is best known for. Called “America in Detail,” the series consisted of large-scale portraits of the landscapes and people of the United States. It was groundbreaking, and a hybrid product of its time: Commissioned by Epson America, the images were printed with digital ink-jet technology, then brand new, though Wilkes shot them all on film.

“The digital cameras of the time weren’t able to capture the detail I needed, which was I why I shot on film,” Wilkes says. “But after scanning the images, we were able to create certain processed looks — we mimicked autochromes, one of the earliest color-photo technologies, for instance. And I remember thinking, ‘My god, imagine what we’re going to be able to do in five, 10 or 15 years.’”

A decade and a half later, Wilkes is once again probing photography’s future. His latest work, featured in the January issue of National Geographic  magazine, is a series of portraits of national parks, created in the the “Day to Night” technique that has won Wilkes wide acclaim in recent years. Created from many individual exposures that are digitally blended together, the images compress 24 hours of day and night into a single shot that tracks the passing of time.

The series shows the technique’s fullest capabilities: Spectacularly detailed, they capture the vistas of Yosemite, Yellowstone and other locations as vast backgrounds, in front of which diminutive human life is taking place. “I am a narrative storyteller. For me the foreground element is very important,” Wilkes says. “That’s where I get to tell stories about how people interact within the context of these landscapes.”

The images are in essence an expansion of a visual language Wilkes has been refining throughout his career, from the breakthrough five-year study of Ellis Island he began in 1998 to his “America In Detail” series. Though his work has the look and emotional texture of reality, it is conceptual in nature.

Similarly, his "Day to Night" work can be misapprehended. We have become so accustomed to the many marvels digital technology has brought us, in both photography and filmmaking, that it is possible to view Wilkes’s new series as very accomplished, even miraculous examples of computer compositing, and leave it at that.

Wilkes sees them as something more. For him, the images undermine a fundamental notion of photography and perhaps even redefine how we experience time.

The Single Moment

“We were all taught that photography is about capturing the single moment, but now we don’t have to do that,” Wilkes says. “We can get hundreds of moments in one photograph. It’s a new way of seeing and storytelling that I'm fascinated by.”

Wilkes has been working on his “Day to Night” photographs for six years, though it’s only recently, he says, that people have begun to realize how the concept of still photography is evolving.

Certainly, many photographers have of late been pushing back against the boundaries of time to tell stories, using time lapse and video and even GIFs and cinemagraphs — still photos in which a portion of the picture moves repetitively. Wilkes’s images capture time’s passage in a different way — one that retains the qualities that make the still photo such a powerful memory maker. Your eyes are allowed to linger over his photos, delighting in minutiae and epic expanses while taking in sunrises and sunsets at the same time. It requires close attention to see what he is actually doing. “I reward viewers who look hard at my work,” he says.

               © Stephen Wilkes/National Geographic

There are abundant rewards in his photograph of Yellowstone National Park. Wilkes shot from an upper window in the historic Old Faithful Inn to frame the park’s most famous feature, working during a full moon (as he did with other images in the series) to capture nighttime details. In the photo, you see the moon at the far right, with sunrise at the far left. Old Faithful sends a plume of steam that, Wilkes notes, can be viewed as the hands of a clock. At the bottom of the image there is a semi-circular walkway marked by rotating shadows as if on a sundial.

Wilkes likens his “Day to Night” photographs to a painting that deeply impressed him as a boy, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 masterpiece “The Harvesters,” which shows workers in a field within an immense landscape. “In the painting, there’s an enormous narrative going on in what can be seen as an almost insignificant scale,” Wilkes says. “That had a huge effect on me. Later I thought, ‘Can I use photography to tell stories like that?’”

The Trouble With Cherry Blossoms

One of the more challenging scenes that Wilkes captured in his National Geographic portfolio showed crowds of people walking among cherry blossoms at the National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C.. He shot from a perch inside a crane 50 feet in the air, where he was regularly unsettled by air turbulence from jets approaching nearby Ronald Reagan Airport.

“I had the Washington Memorial on my left, and I realized the sun was going to rise over the Jefferson Memorial on my right, and there was this lovely foreground area where people were riding bicycles and walking, so it was ideal,” he says. “We were also lucky to be there on the day when the blossoms peaked. You could plan a shoot like this for three years and miss it entirely — that’s how finicky the blossoms can be. If it’s five degrees too cold, they start closing; if it's too warm or rains, they can start dropping.”

                 © Stephen Wilkes/National Geographic

Wilkes grew up interested in science as well as photography, which, when you consider his work, isn’t surprising. “I took a scientific photography class when I was 11 or 12, so my first photos were taken through a microscope. And it was an overwhelming experience. The idea of discovery and photography was like everything I wanted,” he says.

The kinds of discoveries that brought about his “Day to Night” work could not have happened, he says, had he not come of age as a photographer in the analog era, learning his craft at a fundamental level. “When I did the Ellis Island images, there was no retouching — it was all transparency 4 x 5 film and available light,” he says. “I developed a zone system for color to create the range of highlight and shadow information in those photographs.”

Becoming a digital photographer required learning a new language. “When you have a mastery of analog, your brain is wired differently than with digital,” Wilkes says. The deeper linguistic structure was, however, the same. Now, with his “Day to Night” photographs, he is taking it all a step further.

“It’s been an exciting journey, and I feel that the work is just now beginning to mature,” he says.
Photo at top: © Stephen Wilkes/National Geographic