Romeo & Juliet

It was 1996, 16 years before Stephen Wilkes actually began shooting his Day to Night series, when the idea of capturing changing moments in time was planted in his mind. LIFE magazine asked Wilkes to shoot a photograph from the set of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, which would be printed as a three-page pullout. The magazine wanted to reference one of its own sections from the 1940s titled ‘The Big Picture’ which had all the actors and crew of a movie photographed in a single image. While Wilkes was trying to find a way to shoot a panoramic photograph of a square set, his inspiration came from David Hockney’s photo collages. By taking hundreds of images and manually pasting them together one by one, he would be able to take the square and open it up into a panoramic view. Following that very method, he had everybody in the film set hold still while he panned the camera around the room until he got to where the main stars, Claire Daines and Leonardo Di Caprio, were embracing. As his camera got to the far right of the photograph, there was a mirror in the room that showed Daines’ and Di Caprio’s reflection. Wilkes asked them to kiss for that single picture.

Stephen Wilkes, Romeo and Juliet
Stephen Wilkes, Romeo and Juliet, 1996

“I came back to my studio here, put this massive picture together by hand, and when I saw it all together I had this ‘aha’ moment that this is such a cool idea that in one moment they’re embracing, and in the next moment time is changing, and they’re kissing. The concept of changing time in a picture kind of happened there. That was the seed, or what I like to describe as the ‘thunderstorm’, the thunder before the big storm, the creative storm that I had to begin this (Day to Night) process.”

16 Years Later

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

16 years later, when New York Magazine asked Stephen Wilkes was asked to create a picture of the Highline in NYC, he discovered that there was now a way for him to seamlessly take specific moments of time and meld them into a single photograph, similar to what he had done for LIFE Magazine. Wilkes shot the Highline north to south, day to nigh. This photograph launched Wilkes headfirst into what now has become the signature series of his career.

Painterly Influences

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1965, Oil on Wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1965, Oil on Wood, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is a pronounced and painterly influence in the photographer’s Day to Night series. Stephen Wilkes, as a student of art history, says that Bruegel the Elder has been one of his greatest inspirations. He can still recount the first time he saw Bruegel’s painting, The Harvesters, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was 13 years old. The painting depicts a scene where a group of men are eating, taking a mid-day nap perhaps, while the others are harvesting wheat in the background. According to Wilkes, if the viewer looks closely and long enough, they can see that both groups of men are, in fact, the same people. In fact, Bruegel displays different times of a single day in this one painting.

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, Oil on Canvas, Smithsonian American Museum

Another one of Wilkes’ painterly influences is the Hudson River School paintings. The Hudson River School painters painted light moving through a scene. The paintings almost appear to be lit from behind. Much like the Hudson River School paintings, a subtle and nuanced dimensionality is present throughout Wilkes’ Day to Night photographs, as the photographer captures how sunlight moves through a scene and how the angle of light changes, creating an overall depth and perception. Stephen Wilkes uses time as the driver of where the light is relative to a specific scene in his photographs, where the changing color of light is the que for what time it is in that very moment.

Creating a Day to Night 

Wilkes’ process of creating a Day to Night photograph begins by deciding on a specific location and later determining the scope, the frame of the picture plane. By drawing the parameters of the frame, he is able to recreate the exact point of view of what it looks like to look through Wilkes’ eyes.

“I want you to see how I see.” says Wilkes, “I try to bring you into my physical space in a way. It’s almost as if the viewer is sitting next to me in the crane or on the mountain top.”

Stephen Wilkes, Grizzly Bears, Bella Coola, British Columbia, Day to Night
Stephen Wilkes, Grizzly Bears, Bella Coola, British Columbia, Day to Night

The objective of the Day to Night series is to invite the spectator to look longer, deeper and more carefully at a specific location. His play on the ideas of “looking” and “seeing” are crucial elements throughout the series. Wilkes believes that the more the viewer looks, the more they will discover, and through these discoveries, the more he will be able to tell a story — or many stories. At a time when we are constantly bombarded with visuals, Wilkes invites and challenges the spectator to slow down in their act of looking. Through slowing down, they are able to discover something new. Wilkes’ unique method of capturing specific moments based on time and merging them, represents a certain deeper truth, and acts to composite everything that happened that day in that single venue in which the photographs were taken.

Stephen Wilkes, South Beach, Miami, Day to Night
Stephen Wilkes, South Beach, Miami, Day to Night, 2020, Fuji Crystal Archival Photograph

Further commenting on the idea of a deeper truth, Wilkes says;

Let’s say we’re at a parade, and you took a picture of a baby crying in his mother’s arms and I shot a picture of these other kids laughing and having the greatest time. Which one of these photographs is an actual representation of what the parade was like? All photographers make decisions in a way, we make aesthetic choices. One of the things that’s interesting about my work that I discovered is that I get to bare witness throughout the day and into the night, and through baring witness, I get to capture very specific moments as time changes, but I also get to see a moment of sadness, a moment of joy, a moment of playfulness. That’s really a representation of what happened in that place. Maybe 50 years from now when people look at my work, I think they will become really important historical documents because they are windows into how we live.”

Every Single Memory of the Day Lives in the Photograph

Stephen Wilkes, Ottawa, Canada 150, Day To Night
Stephen Wilkes, Ottawa, Canada 150, Day To Night, 2010, Fuji Crystal Archival Photograph

Wilkes’s Day to Night photograph titled Ottawa, Canada 150, from 2010 was highly praised by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when he saw the photograph in the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa and told Wilkes that every single memory that him and his wife had of that day lived in the photograph.

Experimenting with Time and Space

As Stephen Wilkes experiments with the idea of time and space, there is also an undeniable integration of science throughout his Day to Night series. Wilkes comes from a scientific background, as his father was a chemist, and he grew up spending much of his time in laboratories. In high school, one of his physics teachers had a profound effect by teaching Wilkes how to visualize physics, a concept he later discovered while reading Einstein’s biography when he had just begun shooting the Day to Night series.

“When you read into Einstein’s work” says the photographer, “visualization was such an intricate ingredient in the way he created his formulas.”

Another “aha” moment for him, as Wilkes describes it, came when Einstein described time as a fabric which gets bent based on gravitational fields. Working off of a grid of time on a vector, Wilkes essentially creates his own fabric, except that it is flattened out on a 2D plane which becomes the photograph itself.

Determining the Axis

In his photograph, Flamingos shot in Kenya, Africa for example, Wilkes points out that the time vector changes in the y-axis, where the bottom is day time, and the top of the photograph shows night time on the vertical plane. On the day of the shooting around 5:30 in the afternoon, the flamingos were attacked from the front and the rear, which led them to fly up, thus determining what the center of the photograph would be. This organic moment completely changed the expected movement of time that Wilkes had initially planned.

Stephen Wilkes, Flamingos, Lake Bogoria, Kenya (Day to Night)
Stephen Wilkes, Flamingos, Lake Bogoria, Kenya, Day to Night,

Recording Our Ever-Changing Habitats

Whether a cityscape or landscape, Stephen Wilkes’ never ending curiosity allows him to continue shooting his Day to Night series, photographing some of the most captivating locations in the world. The changing of time in his photographs displays the diversity and richness of nature, as well as city life, creating a deep engagement for the planet on which we live. By inviting the viewer to take a closer and longer look, Wilkes challenges us to slow down, savor the process of looking, and find meaning in the power and beauty of everything that surrounds us. When asked about what he hopes the viewer takes away from his Day to Night photographs, Stephen Wilkes says;

“When my memory activates the viewer’s memory, then I’ve done something right. I want to rediscover something new every time I look at one of my photographs, which is what great art is to me. Great art doesn’t reveal itself at one glance. And if you are a good looker, I try to reward you for your looking by showing you something new each time.”

Through capturing the flow of life and how everything communicates and is connected over time, Wilkes’ photographs continue to be a complex record of our ever-changing habitats.