As one of the most original contemporary photographers on the international scene, Stephen Wilkes, painstakingly creates composite panoramic photographs that transcend the traditional snapshot moments of conventional photography. By creating photographs that present the passing of time, in a single photo, Wilkes expands the medium’s capacity to represent time and space.
“I’m driven by pure passion to create photographs that tell stories.”
Since opening his studio in New York City in 1983, Wilkes has built an unprecedented body of work and a reputation as one of America’s most ingenious photographers, widely recognized for his fine art, editorial, and commercial work.
Day to Night, Wilkes’ most defining project, began in 2009. These constructed landscapes, portrayed from a fixed camera angle for up to 30 hours, capture fleeting moments as light passes in front of his lens over a full day. To create the final image, Wilkes blends his shots taken atop the hoisted crane into a single photograph, which takes months to complete.
“I want something that resonates in your mind and feels familiar to you. Even if you haven’t been there, there’s a connection to that place somewhere in your memory bank. That’s where I start. I take that connection, and then I take this iconic place that I’ve chosen, and now I find a place to photograph it from where it’s never been seen quite like this. I create what I call a time vector within the pictures. So, I set my camera up. Many of these photographs are shot from a cherry picker, so I’m in a 150ft Condor, it’s a crane. I’m usually up around 50 to 60ft in the air. I sit there in a fixed position, never moving, and we stay there for 15 hours on average. I photograph from sunrise into the evening, taking probably about 1500 single images. Sometimes it’s even more than that. Then out of those 1500 photographs, we edit down to the 50 best moments from the day into the night. And these are very specific moments. This is not a camera that I set up, and I just run a timelapse, it is not a timelapse. These are street photographs from an epic viewpoint.”
Day to Night has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning as well as dozens of other prominent media outlets and, with a grant from the National Geographic Society, 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.
In November 2019, Stephen Wilkes traveled to the Canadian Arctic to photograph Polar Bears. With this shoot, Wilkes creates new work for his continuing Day to Night series, focusing now on endangered species and habitats.
“This Day to Night photograph of the Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba, was photographed in November when the ice freezes and the polar bears begin to migrate and cross Hudson Bay onto the ice to find food. Time changes in this Day to Night on the Y-axis. The bottom of the photograph is early morning, and as your eye moves up vertically, time moves forward. The evening begins with the Harvest Moon rising, which can be seen just above the horizon line. The dramatic rays of light within the sky are actual moonlight rays. There are a few polar bears that can be seen meandering on the snow-covered ice. One needs to look closely to see them, as they are very adept at camouflaging themselves against the white snow. Notice the green color at the bottom of the photograph; that’s bay water, which is not fully frozen yet in the early morning light. Regularly, seawater would not be seeping through the ice this time of year, and although it was very cold, the bay was not completely frozen due to weeks of previous unseasonal mild weather. That reality has created less ice for the bears, which impedes their ability to cross the bay and search for food. The number of bears we saw was much less than in previous years. There’s real data that reflects the fact that due to the warmer air and the rise in water temperature, less ice is being created and having a direct impact on the survival of this species.”
This photograph was completed over the course of 36 hours from a tundra buggy. Stephen was elevated 20ft off of the ground, to get his view and to avoid the bears. The bears could not climb up and reach him. The buggy also afforded him shelter, some heat, and a bathroom.
The most recent body of work by Stephen Wilkes addresses climate change and the ecological impact it is having on a global scale. His commitment to inform the viewer, as well as working towards a change, is a prime example of how a fine art photographer can advocate for the environment while producing an engaging and rewarding body of work.