A Conversation With Stephen Wilkes

Stephen Wilkes at work.

Stephen Wilkes fwill discuss his “Day to Night” series where the photographer shot the same place over the course of 12 to 36 hours in an effort to capture light, time and life — at the Tulla Booth Gallery in Sag Harbor on Friday, August 31, from 6 to 8 p.m. Mr. Wilkes talks about his inspiration for the prolific exhibition, his favorite places to shoot and his new work chronicling bird migration for National Geographic.

Was there a moment or a place that inspired you to begin the Day to Night series?

First is when you seed an idea, and then there is that moment where there’s an opportunity to actually take that idea and bring it to life. And I’d say the seeding of the idea happened, believe it or not, around 1996. I was doing a project for Life magazine, photographing Baz Luhrmann’s film “Romeo & Juliet,” and Life had asked me to create a gatefold, so it’s like a four-page pullout, in the magazine, of the entire cast and crew of the film. We went to Mexico, and so I’m thinking I’ve got to create this big panoramic photograph of everybody, and that they wanted me to really pay homage to the old series they used to do in the ’40s, it’s called The Big Picture, where they would go to these film sets and capture everybody involved in the making of one of these important films. I got to Mexico and realized that the set was a square. At the time I was really concerned, “How am I going to make this huge panoramic shape of a photograph out of a square set?” At the time, David Hockney was doing this really interesting series shooting hundreds of images and collaging them together. I was inspired by that. I realized that I could actually shoot maybe 250 images moving the camera, and I would create this mosaic and just open the square into a panoramic shape, and so that’s what I started to do. As I started photographing, I had Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the middle of my photograph embracing. As I panned my camera to the right, kept taking more and more photographs, I noticed there was a huge mirror on the set that was part of my photograph, and I saw them reflecting in the mirror. For just that one moment, I asked them, “Could you just kiss for this one photograph?” And they kissed. I came back to New York and I took these 250 images and I literally glued them together by hand to create this single image, really, this mosaic of a single image. Suddenly I looked down and I realized that in the center of the image they were embracing, but in the reflection, they were kissing, and I had changed time in the photograph. So that was the aha kind of moment where, “Wow, that’s really, really cool idea,” the idea that you could have multiple moments within the context of a single photograph.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Stephen Wilkes.

That led to really the second single moment where the whole idea came alive, which was I got hired by New York magazine to do a definitive photograph of the Highline … I said to the photo editor, “What’s really amazing is it’s really cool during lunch time, people hang out over at 10th Avenue. You could see those glass windows as they eat lunch. Then it’s really kind of spooky at night, at about 10 p.m. — the whole neighborhood changes and it’s a different spot.” Suddenly this idea came to my mind, “What if I was able to capture day and night in one photograph, if I could literally have time change throughout the Highline from going from south to heading north?” She was like, “Could you do that?” I said, “I don’t know. I could try,” and that’s really how it happened.

To be able to see all those facets in one image is kind of remarkable.

One of the things I was very interested in when I began this series was the idea of exploring memory, in a way. When people ask me, “Why do you decide on specific, certain locations? What’s your criteria?” I think I’m drawn to places that are iconic, places that are really part of our collective memory …It’s familiar, but now it’s upside-down because now I’m showing it to you from a perspective you maybe have never seen before, and then I begin to change time through this photograph, so it has multiple levels to it in a way.

‘Central Park Snow’ by Stephen Wilkes.

Many of your images are in New York City. Is it a particularly special place for you?

The series started in New York because I just love New York. It was kind of like my sonnet to New York City. I think I was always captivated by the energy of New York, the epic scale of it, the grandeur and the beauty. I wanted to create photographs that celebrated all of that. One of the most gratifying things about this project for me has been the ability to meld together all the things I love about the medium of photography. I started out as a street photographer and now, what I’m doing in a crane 40-feet in the air is still being a street photographer. I have no control of who’s in or who’s out of my pictures until the end. But when I’m shooting it’s whatever comes into my frame. Nobody sees me, nobody notices me. I become invisible in a way. It’s through that process that I get to witness all these unique moments throughout the day and the night. Then as I go back — I might shoot on average 1,200 to 2,000 photographs in anywhere from 12 to 36 hours of photographing — I edit them down, based on time, the best single moments of the day. Those are the moments that create the stories and the narrative that I want you to remember about this particular moment in history and time.

Shooting from a single space at an exact point must require a tremendous amount of precision.

What I do is I find these epic views. Sometimes I’m in a crane for 18 hours. Sometimes I’m on a cliff, sometimes I’m on a roof top. It really depends. I could on a balcony, I could be underneath a sign in Time Square. It really depends on what is going to give me the view that I want. I then find that location and then we have to get permission obviously to be up there for these extended hours. This is not, by any means normal, what I do. Then the camera stays in a locked position

One thing that’s really important is I think people sometimes misunderstand, they think I’m doing a time-lapse of a scene. A time lapse is an automated process. That’s not what I do. I hand-cock a traditional lens and shoot one picture at a time over 12 or 36 hours, whatever the timeframe is of the window that I’ve created this image in. I work in the most traditional manner as a photographer. Where it becomes completely untraditional is in the post side of what I do. The fact that I’m shooting digital allows me to do this now. As I shoot I’m literally creating a puzzle in my mind as I photograph. So as time changes my focus changes throughout the scene. In the morning, I know where my photograph is starting, that’s where my focus is. As time changes my shift changes. My focus changes to where time is in my scene … Then I’m able to literally take the specific moments where they were in time and seamlessly blend them into this one master photograph. It’s a compression of time. On a scientific level, I’m exploring the space-time continuum within a still photograph. And as I’ve been doing it over the last nine years of doing this work, it’s becoming more and more evolved and it’s more and more sophisticated … When you look at my images you can actually see the shadows rotate in time. We go to that level of detail.

In nine years what have been some of your most inspired locations?

New York City is extraordinary. I shot the Flatiron Building on 9/11 in 2010. To be able to see the Flatiron Building half in day and half in night — to take what is essentially an architectural mirror of itself, and then mirror time through it was really exciting. To be able to also have the lights of the World Trade Center be part of that as almost a footnote of that image is really powerful — to show that life goes on, but we never forget and it’s still very much a part of who we are. So that was a special moment for me.

‘Flatiron’ by Stephen Wilkes.

One of my favorite images is of course Coney Island, capturing the magic and the complete and utter fascination that I have with shooting people on Coney Island on a perfect summer day in July … You can see the daytime, all the fun things that are going on and then as time transitions literally through the boardwalk it turns to night and the amusement park is alive with colors and lights.

As I’ve evolved the work now into shooting wildlife, capturing a narrative of animal communication within my photographs has become a very exciting new direction of the work. I would say the seminal piece that actually really opened my eyes into this whole new world of communication would have to be the Serengeti image I created of “Day to Night” where I spent 26 hours in a crocodile blind. It was during what was peak migration. But unfortunately, there was a five-week drought going on, and so I witnessed, over this 26-hour period, all these competitive species come and share this watering hole. They all realized they had to come for a drink and there was no fighting, there was no brawling. It was the most astounding thing to watch, that these competitive species share a resource that now with water shortages around the world we may be having wars over in the next 25 years and these animals seem to understand that water is this resource that we all get to share. That was a powerful message that I sort of gleaned from this experience and it made me start to want to really study wildlife in a deeper way …So I’m really excited about exploring that and that has subsequently led me to National Geographic giving me a series, a grant, to create “Day to Night” images of bird migration around the world.

‘Serengeti’ by Stephen Wilkes.

Do you see the “Day to Night” series coming to an end or are there just endless possibilities for how you could explore this kind of photography?

Wilkes: I’m coming out with a book with Taschen this fall. That will certainly be a highlight of the series of everything that I’ve done to date, but I continue to have interest in this work. I won’t be doing as many as I’ve done over the last two or three years, because the pace I’ve been creating these has been epic in itself, when you think about the amount of work and energy that goes into creating each one of these photographs.

At the same time, I’m interested in exploring other things. I’m moving into some unique areas that I’m working on with [Augmented Reality] AR and [Virtual Reality] VR technology. I’m very much an artist who’s interested in pushing boundaries and really trying to find unique ways to tell stories. Things that really touch us emotionally at our core, that’s what I’m really interested in.