Pushing Boundaries

Stephen Wilkes, since opening his studio in 1983, has continually pushed the boundaries and possibilities of the photographic medium. The Connecticut based photographer has shot numerous editorial and commercial assignments, but his best known project, Day to Night, is a series of photographs that captures the passage of time within a single frame. Wilkes began the series in the early 2000s, when working for New York Magazine. Assigned to shoot the famous Highline in New York City, he discovered an innovative way of seamlessly taking specific moments throughout the day and merging them into a single frame, shooting the Highline from north to south and day to night. What started with an idea for Wilkes then turned into the most inventive series of his career, one that he continues to further explore and develop through new techniques and locations.

Stephen Wilkes, The Highline, Day to Night, 2009, Fuji Crystal Archival Photograph
Stephen Wilkes, The Highline, Day to Night, 2009, Fuji Crystal Archival Photograph

Drawing Inspiration from Masters

While utilizing digital technology and meticulous editing, Wilkes’ influences for the palette of the Day to Night series actually go back to paintings by Old Masters such as Bruegel the Elder, and the Hudson River School painters. The painters’ treatment of light and the passage of time in a single painting became the main source of inspiration for Wilkes. Light, in fact, acts as the very driver in each of his photographs, where the changing color of the light is the que for what time it is in various moments in the image.

The Process

Before the shoot, Wilkes first decides on the specific location, and later the scope of the picture plane. The shoots themselves can take around 30+ hours, with Wilkes situated on a crane with his equipment, an act that requires immense physical and mental discipline and strength. The post production process is as meticulous as the actual shoot itself.

“The 1,000 or so images are just specific moments, but I usually have a pretty good idea once the last image is taken of how time will move in the final photograph. I also have certain moments in my mind that are going to be central in terms of the narrative of that final photo. Once I’m back at my studio, the editing process can take months. I shoot such broad frames that things I focused on initially, that I loved in the moment, I will later find that there might be other moments I’m missing. I actually get to rediscover my photos in some way through the editing process.”

Wilkes creates photographs based on a certain time vector, and the final image is formulated along that axis. The resulting photographs depicts unique moments of life in beautifully cohesive panorama views from some of the most captivating locations around the world.

Stephen Wilkes, Grizzly Bears, Chilko Lake, B.C, Day to Night
Stephen Wilkes, Grizzly Bears, Chilko Lake, B.C, Day to Night, 2022, Fuji Crystal Archival Photograph

Grizzly Bears, Chilko Lake, B.C.

A new addition to the Day to Night series titled Grizzly Bears, Chilko Lake, B.C was executed in 2022, and was one the three photographs commissioned by the National Geographic Society. All three photographs were either shot on locations emphasizing imperiled environments. As the first picture of the series, Wilkes gained access to a very remote, glacial lake on the outside of north of Vancouver, which is also the end point what is known as the Chilko River. The shoot itself was scheduled at a specific time of the year, where there is an abundance of grizzly bears who hunt on coho salmons which had just spawned. For the recording of the photograph, Wilkes worked in an area called Bear Camp; a place that has been set up where people can observe the bears at closer range. The area also includes a handful of houses and lodges run by the local indigenous community. As Day to Night images are always photographed from an elevated perspective, Wilkes was given access to a large deck, where he spent over 36 hours photographing the bears in their natural habitat.

Telling Stories of Grand Beauty, Awe and Wonder

While commenting on the photograph, Stephen Wilkes recalls the magnetic, scenic view of the lake where during the set up and shoot, the water appeared to be crystal clear. An unusual occurrence, Wilkes says that it was “an incredible gift” to have the lake absolutely still, glass like. The stillness allowed him a continuity in the water’s appearance through a mirrored lake, which added a surrealistic aspect to the photograph. Throughout the shoot, when bears swam into the calm lake, the only surface tension in the water was from the bears, creating concentric rings and beautiful, vibrational highlights. Watching these unique creatures feeding, teaching and playing with their babies, their mode of survival not only brought him joy, but reminded Wilkes once again of the opportunity to tell stories of grand beauty, and of the awe and wonder he got to experience over the course of three days on location.

The Poetic and Observational Sides

There are both poetic and observational sides to Wilkes’ Day to Night series. In terms of the observational aspect, Wilkes says that,

“Working closer and closer with indigenous communities, you begin to understand their level of consciousness in terms of the way they see the world, which is very different from the Western world.”

Through his work, Wilkes discovered that his consciousness has also changed; the way he perceived nature, and the interconnectivity of our planet that he observes and highlights. While commenting on the experience, he says,

“There is a certain spirituality that I became in tune to throughout the making of this photograph.’”

An Interconnected World

We see that the overall message of Wilkes’ work, his aim to make the viewer see the world as he, the local animals and the indigenous communities see the world, is reflected onto this very photograph. His images push the viewer towards a depth of looking and seeing, and ultimately build a connection with the picture. Wilkes further stresses the idea that everything in his work has to distill down to the essence, which, in this case, is the awe of the cycle of nature, and the effort to show the interconnected world.

Inspiring Records of the World and Our Connection to It

The photographs of Stephen Wilkes serves as an aesthetically rich record of how we live and the manifest richness of nature. His practice of merging time through multiple exposures within an image provides deeper representation of what a certain place looks and feels like. Wilkes believes that his photographs can be inspiring records of the world and our connection to it. His photographs are included in 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. Stephen Wilkes currently resides and works in Connecticut, USA.