By Jim Colton
“Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” -- Dorothea Lange
Capturing moments in time; at its core, that’s what photography is really all about. Eadweard Muybridge did it with his motion studies. Harold “Doc” Edgerton did it with his stroboscopic work, allowing the naked eye to see what was previously invisible…like a bullet as it pierced an apple. Both of these concepts were considered benchmark moments for our industry. And as our profession evolves, the advent of new technology offers us a window into unseen worlds.
The single frame captures a moment in time in a fraction of a second, preserving it as history. Longer exposures are sometimes used to allow enough light to penetrate the frame or for artistic effects in pans and blurs….generally within a few seconds. But what if you were to compress time to allow for not only seconds…but minutes or even hours…to be illustrated in a single frame? That was the genesis for “Day to Night” by Stephen Wilkes.
The idea came to Wilkes 18 years ago when photographing the set of the movie Romeo and Juliet for LIFE magazine. Wilkes was asked to get the entire cast into a single panoramic frame stylistically similar to the single image “big picture” tableau of the 1940’s Hollywood epics. Wilkes instructed hundreds of the cast and crew to remain still and used a large mirror to reflect the set. He then told the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, first to embrace and then to kiss. He took over 250 images which he would paste together by hand, Hockney-esque, at a later date. The embrace was centered in the frame but the kiss was used in the reflection. What Wilkes discovered was that he had changed time within that final single image.
Wilkes’ photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. His images have graced the covers and pages of New York magazine, Time, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and the New York Times Magazine to name a few. His commercial and advertising campaigns include many of the world’s leading companies like American Express, Nike, Sony and Verizon and agencies like McCann Erickson and Ogilvy & Mather among others.
His work is in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress, the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, the Jewish Museum of New York and the Griffin Museum of Photography as well as numerous private collections.
Wilkes’ photographic honors include the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography, Photographer of the Year Award from Adweek and a Lucy Award for Fine Art Photographer of the Year. He is on the Board of Directors of Save Ellis Island and on the Advisory Board of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and donates his time to endeavors like the Eddie Adams Workshop.
Wilkes is continually thinking out-of-the-box...always coming up with new ways to illustrate his stories. To capture the effects of the BP Gulf Oil spill, he did studio lit portraits of crabs and birds dripping in oil! His cocktail of fine art and photojournalism is a magical elixir. And now, with Day to Night (exhibition opening at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, September 27th…see link below) we’ll be drinking out of, what Wilkes calls, his “giant soup!” This week, zPhotoJournal takes a ride through the wormhole as we have a visit with Stephen Wilkes and his Time Machine!
Jim Colton: How did you get started in the photography business? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Stephen Wilkes: My first photographs were taken through a microscope at the age of 12 but I guess my real introduction to photography came when I was 13. I was photographed by a great photographer named Rene Aresu who did a portrait of me and my identical twin brother for our bar mitzvah. He shot us side by side by candlelight. The photograph blew my mind and I remember telling my mom, I want to work for that guy and learn from him. So every Saturday, my folks dropped me off at Queens Bridal Center in Jamaica, Queens, and I began assisting Rene for over 2 ½ years. Rene would always tell me, “Stephen, they only throw the rice once…so you always have to be ready!” He taught me how to be a pro and he became my first mentor.
After a few years of working with Rene, I began to learn how to do all the classic wedding shots – double exposures in the champagne glass, etc., -- and by the time I was 15, I was ready to start my own business. I started in my local neighborhood and my first printed cards read, “Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs & Special Events.” My motto was, “Take advantage of me, while I’m young and innocent.”
I've been incredibly blessed by having several mentors in my life. I remember meeting Bob Adelman who I took a class from when I was 16. I was seriously interested in photojournalism and Bob gave me one line that changed my life and my direction as an artist. I wanted to go on to a technical school to learn photography and when Bob looked at my work he said, “Hey kid, you want people to have an emotional connection with your photographs? Then go get yourself a solid Liberal Arts education. Understand the world you plan on photographing and your work will communicate to a larger audience.” He added one other detail, “And study business, because most photographers are lousy businessmen.”
So with that knowledge I applied to Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. I found a dual major of Communications and Photography & Business Marketing. It was there that I met my next mentor, Professor Tom Richards…or TR, as we lovingly call him. TR inspired me to become a color photographer and I believe the focus he gave me in those early years really helped define my craft and see color on a deeper level. TR was instrumental in inspiring a number of young, and soon to be great, photographers all who came through the Newhouse photography program; Eric Meola and Joe McNally for example.
During my junior year of college I was glued to the TIME/LIFE series on photography. I remember stopping at one guy’s works constantly. And as I thumbed through page after page, the credit always read: Photograph by Jay Maisel. I had to meet this guy! I did, and he has been my dear friend and mentor for 35 years!
Jay redefined so many things about photography for me. I realized when I was drawn to his imagery it was as if we were sharing a visual language. I had the passion and the drive and I thought I worked hard…until I met Jay. He inspired me to take my work to another level. And his first lesson was, “Talent means nothing if you don’t outwork everyone…every day. The more you practice the luckier you get!”
JC: One of your early projects; Ellis Island, was when I first became familiar with your work. The photos reminded me of a land that time forgot. Can you tell our readers a little about that project? How you came across it? How long it took to shoot?
SW: The Ellis Island story came to me through an editorial assignment from Bob Ciano, formerly at LIFE magazine. LIFE had folded and Bob was working in Chicago at Encyclopedia Britannica. He called me up out of the blue and said, “Stephen, I've got this project called the ‘South Side of Ellis Island,’ and it reminded me of you because I know you love old texture and patina so I thought you might be interested in going out and doing some pictures for us.” So I said, “What is this place?” And he said, “It’s some giant old hospital on Ellis Island.”
I didn't know of any hospital on Ellis Island. Like most people I've always thought of Ellis as a single Island and the Great Hall and that was the immigration point. As it turns out, there are two other islands. So Bob said, “The only problem is that they are only going to give you one hour.” I said, “One hour? What can I do in one hour?” I said the heck with it and I went out and when I got to the island I remember feeling like someone raised the Titanic and they gave me the first ticket to go through it and see what it looked like.
The hospital had closed 50 years earlier…the government basically left with the windows open. So what I was seeing was this perfect moment where nature and the physical architecture were in a 50/50 dance with each other. I remember walking through the building and I couldn't even pick up my camera because I so overwhelmed with the overall feeling I had. As I was walking, I saw a gentleman outside who was wearing a hazmat suit and he was doing some construction on one of the old laboratory buildings.
He saw me, walked in and took off his white helmet and a suit that looked like it was something you’d wear for the Ebola virus, and I’m saying to myself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” I’m wearing a tee shirt with no mask and he’s totally protected. He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was taking pictures for the Britannica and I asked him what he was doing, especially in that suit! He told me he was working with the New York Landmarks Conservancy and they were trying to stabilize the area as a living ruin.
I was so fascinated that I asked if there was some way I could be involved in it. After a short conversation he invited me to meet with the folks at the Landmarks Conservancy the following week. They asked me if I could also do some video for them as they were trying to raise money to show Congress that for a minimal amount of money they could stabilize and save this place as a living ruin. I told them I was totally in, but I would need unlimited access; 24/7, sunrise, sunset, whatever I needed to do. And they agreed!
So I had five years of unlimited access. I was enchanted with doing these large format color pictures and if I shot 3 pictures during an entire day, it was a great day for me. To give you a comparison of how it was then to how I shoot today; I shoot more pictures for one of my current Day to Night images than I did during the entire five years of shooting at Ellis!
It changed me in a lot of ways. It was the first time I had ever shot architecture. It was the first time I ever made pictures in empty rooms but there was something else I was feeling in those rooms. My fundamental roots are with street photography so I have developed an instinct. I can smell a picture coming. I can anticipate and read body language and I can feel energy from people. So when someone is open to being photographed I can feel it and when they’re not interested, I get it right away.
But at Ellis, I would walk into these empty rooms and I would feel a similar energy that I was feeling on the street...except there was nobody in the rooms. I became completely addicted to the place. I had no financing; I did everything on my own, including hiring assistants and spending a ton of money on film. My wife Bette (Who is also my executive producer and business manager) was saying, “You’re out of your mind…when is this ever going to end?”
JC: Didn't the work lead to some substantial funding towards restoration?
SW: Yes, we actually raised about 6 ½ million dollars! I remember taking the story to Director of Photography Kathy Ryan of the New York Times Magazine and she said, “Oh my God, we have to do a story on this!” And that was huge because when Kathy brought it forward and published it, now the whole country knew about it…how this incredible piece of American history was essential disintegrating.
When you think about Ellis Island and the history, a lot of people just don’t realize that this side had infinitely more interest historically than the Great Hall did. It was really known as the “forgotten” side. One of the things that Ellis taught me was that photography can actually force social change.
JC: After hurricane Katrina in 2005, you did some aftermath images of the area. A few of the images actually reminded me of your Ellis Island work...but the damage was over a much shorter period of time. What was that assignment like?
SW: I was totally distraught seeing the images of what was happening to this great city of New Orleans. After the mainstream media dropped the story, which was about six months after the storm, I wanted to go down and see firsthand what was happening. Prior to my trip, I had lunch with an old friend from the Ellis Island story who was now working with the World Monuments Fund and told him I wanted to document what was happening in New Orleans.
He told me they we’re doing a project down there on an area right outside the lower 9th ward called “Holy Cross,” where there are row houses that are architecturally unique. It was an area that was hit badly but many of the structures were salvageable and they were trying to save them. He suggested that I document that area and perhaps they could do an exhibit of the work when I came back.
When I first got there, I was so overwhelmed with what I saw and I thought that no single image could really do it justice. I became drawn to these individual stories which I called “Heroes,” because nobody was talking about these people. They not only lived through the storm in their houses but were rebuilding their lives without any kind of assistance. So the work became about these very personal stories which highlighted how important they were in the process of rebuilding their community.
There is one photograph in particular of a man named Mark Hounan, who was in his seventies and was literally gutting two of his rental houses by himself. He had no insurance. He was a repairman who used to fix classic cars like Volkswagen Beetles. I photographed him with one of his green Beetles and you could see that the water level covered his entire car! It looked like somebody had just fished it out of the ocean! And there was one moment where he let his guard down and I managed to capture the emotion.
The print in the exhibition was seven feet tall; almost life-size and when you walk up to the print and look into his eyes, you can see everything that he went through. And that, to me, was the only way you could really tell the story of what happened in New Orleans.
JC: And speaking of other natural disasters, you also covered the aftermath of hurricane Sandy but took a longer view with a "before and after" approach resulting in some stunning diptychs. Tell us a little about the research and production that went into that effort.
SW: A German business magazine called me after seeing my coverage of the aftermath of Sandy and they were interested in going back and seeing what it looked like one year later. It was a big expense for a magazine to do something like this, but to their credit they went ahead with it. I had to do a lot of research and hire the same helicopter pilot I used to take my original aftermath pictures so we could get the same angles, altitude, etc.
It was fascinating to see the changes, some dramatic, some more subtle. It’s amazing to see how the earth reclaims things. When I do this kind of documentary work, I try to make images that are intrinsically beautiful because there’s so much to look at in the world today that’s painful. And we have so many choices; we have the ease of changing the channel or flipping the page or even swiping the iPad. So how do you get somebody to look at something today? How do you engage them? I’ve found that beauty is a means to get to people.
JC: Two other series you produced, one of which was also a diptych approach, was "Burned Objects" and the other on aftermath images of the BP Gulf oil spill. Both involved more of a "still life/fine art" study rather than traditional coverage of a news event. Please tell us a little about each of those projects.
SW: With the Gulf oil disaster, I was originally commissioned by Kira Pollack, Director of Photography at TIME magazine and I wanted to take what was happening there and take it completely out of context. This allowed me to get into the figurative aspect of what a bird or crab looks like dripping in oil. So when you look at it you might think it’s an illustration for the Audubon Society…until you realize they are covered with oil! A lot of effort went into photographing that story. I had to do covert things like set up a still life studio in an area where BP representatives were looking to have people arrested.
The Burned Objects/Plastic series was interesting on a lot of levels because it’s the only time where I've ever been involved where the simplicity of an object actually spoke to both sides of the issue. The burned objects are remnants of fire aftermaths from all over the country.
The everyday plastic objects we use are all derivatives of petroleum. And the irony is that they were strewn all over the beach and in the state of Louisiana, they don’t have any recycling laws! To me, great art and great photojournalism, provokes questions and makes people reflect on their daily lives and choices.
JC: One assignment, which I had the privilege of being tangentially involved in, was the Field of Dreams/Broken Dreams cover of Sports Illustrated. I remember the end result was nothing like the original concept. Can you recall how it started...and how it finished...and what transpired in between?
SW: Sports Illustrated Director of Photography Steve Fine called me up and said they needed a picture of a baseball field, but it had to be nondescript. I had to try and shoot something that evoked an iconic field that didn't connect it to a specific team, but would capture the concept of the game of baseball. I went up to Yale and did some scouting but it didn't feel right and the field wasn't in great shape. So I went to SI to show Steve some of the location pictures and he said, “We have an editorial meeting in a few minutes, why don’t you come in and we’ll hear what Editor Terry McDonell has to say?”
So I went into the meeting and we all talked and as I walked out of the meeting I was walking next to Terry and I asked him if he had ever seen the movie “Field of Dreams.” He said, “Yeah, this is exactly what this is about.” And I said,"Well, I actually photographed that field," and we proceeded to go to a computer, logged on to my website, put the image up on the screen and Terry yelled, “That’s the cover!”
So much for all the planning and meetings and discussions; sometimes things just happen. I tell a lot of young photographers, that sometimes, you just have to live in the moment. You can do all your homework, have the greatest ideas…but when you get out there, you just have to let go; because if you don’t let go, you’re going to miss what could be infinitely better than what you imagined!
JC: You did a story for Vanity Fair on Bernard Madoff's World. And years later, you were assigned a tangential story in Butner, North Carolina. To prove the point that not ALL assignments go the way one wants, can you tell us a little about what was supposed to happen...and what didn't?
SW: I did a story on Bernie Madoff for Vanity Fair and Mark Seal. We did a number of major pieces in the magazine on the whole Bernie Madoff story. So when Bernie was convicted and sent down to the federal penitentiary in Butner, North Carolina…the big question was, “Oh my God, do you think you could get a picture of Bernie in prison?” We found out what Bernie’s routine was at the prison through some connections that the writer had with inmates that had just come out and they knew his daily schedule including what time he would be outside to walk on the track which was right by the barbed wire fence.
I dressed in a hunter’s camouflage suit and manned with an 1,800mm lens in the 100 degree plus heat, we parked in a bird sanctuary/waterfowl impoundment area across from the prison. I was sitting in an “ocean” of poison ivy, to which I am extremely allergic, and we sat from early morning until evening hoping to catch a glimpse of Bernie on his daily walk. Unfortunately, he never came out. What had happened was that New York magazine broke a story ahead of us using illustrations of what Bernie would look like at the dining hall in prison (no actual photography)…so when the prison found out about the story, they figured the press would be coming and they put Madoff into “shutdown” mode and he never left his cell!
This was all unbeknownst to me, so the next day I went up in a helicopter with an 800mm lens mounted on it which from the ground probably looked like I had a bazooka. We got up in the air and when the inmates saw what they thought was a helicopter with a bazooka, they thought it must be a “hit.” So all I saw were people fleeing; a lot of Bernie’s associates, but no Bernie. I never did get a picture of Bernie in prison, which everyone tells me would have been a million dollar picture!
JC: I am totally fascinated with your latest ongoing project "Day to Night." It's a combination of technical mastery with a brilliant concept. Please tell us about how you first came up with the idea...and as much as you can about the intensely time-consuming effort it takes to produce just one image.
SW: The idea came to me almost 20 years ago. I was doing a story for LIFE magazine, photographing Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I was completely fascinated at that time with David Hockney’s book where he was doing photo collages. LIFE wanted a gate-fold which would pay homage to the “big picture” similar to the 1940’s where you would get everybody in the cast and crew into one photo.
So I flew down to Mexico City and got to the location which I was going to turn into a big panorama and when I got to the set, it was a square! So, I’m pulling my hair out saying how am I going to make this a panoramic and then Bingo, I started thinking about Hockney. I decided to shoot 250 images and paste them all together so that it peels open into a panoramic shape.
I had Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the center, and the whole cast and crew behind them and told Danes and DiCaprio to embrace and as I panned to the right, I saw a beautiful 25 foot mirror on the ground and you could see the whole crew reflected. So I instructed everyone to stay exactly where they were but then told Claire and Leonardo to kiss.
When I put this whole thing together 4 weeks later, I realized something that I had never seen or felt before; that when I put them all into a single image, I changed time within the picture. That concept stayed with me for many years and then with the advent of Photoshop, this process became infinitely easier.
Years later, I received a phone call from Jody Quon from New York magazine who said she wanted the definitive photograph of the Highline that was just opening up in New York. So during scouting, I realized that the Highline looked really cool at noon…and really creepy at night. So I said to Jody, “What if we did it Day to Night, south to north.” And she said, “Are you kidding me? All in one picture…you would change time?”
So that image really established the “Day to Night” look, which contains both an intimacy with the people as well as the breadth and scope of the cityscape. The reaction was extremely positive. Later, I was up at NYU where my son had just been accepted and my wife kept elbowing me to pay attention because all I was doing was looking at this beautiful view of Washington Square Park.
I got a call again from Jody Quon who said, “Stephen, do you think we could do this “Day to Night” treatment as a vertical? We have a Christmas issue coming up and I’d love to come up with something for it.” And I told her, “Yes…and I've already got the location for you….Washington Square Park!” After that, it exploded!
I tapped into something. I describe it as, in my own way; I’m putting a face on time! If you look at the history of photography…and you look at Eadweard Muybridge and Harold Edgerton and their contributions to how we see the world…those were moments in photography where our point of view changed because of technology. In a strange way, I feel Day to Night is going to do that because it collapses time into a single image.
I feel like I've created this giant soup. I’m still very excited about photography and right now, it’s probably the most exciting period in the history of the medium. What we can do today as photographers and artists is really up to your imagination.
JC: How many images/frames does it take and/or how long does it take to produce just one image?
SW: The longest one I did is the most recent one on Yosemite which was 26 hours of photographing! It included waiting several hours for the moon to get high enough at 3:30am to light El Capitan. I’m literally grabbing moments throughout the day and into the night. On average I shoot for 15 hours…which translates into about 1,500 to 1,800 images. They are all taken on large format which I edit down to the 50 best moments which we use to create a “base plate,” which allows us to layer them seamlessly together into a single photograph.
I go over every single detail with a really great retoucher, but to me it’s all about the narrative. I’m a story teller and this is taking my street photography to a whole new level. I’m invisible really, 50 feet up in the air and all these people have no idea I’m taking their picture. And the really fun part is, at the end I get to decide, who’s in and who’s out. I have no control over these photographs, but I like to say I get to play God at the end of the day!
When I was a young man I took an art history class in the eighth grade and my professor took us to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I remember seeing a painting called, “The Harvester,” by Pieter Bruegel and it was life changing. I remember walking up to the painting and seeing these little people he had painted in the field and I felt as if I could feel the sweat dripping off their heads even though they were so small within the context of the landscape…but the depth and the detail just blew my mind. So in a lot of ways, my inspiration has come from Bruegel in my Day to Night work.
And when you see my Yosemite shot, you might think of a painter named Albert Bierstadt who was of the Hudson River School. When I was shooting the morning light on Yosemite I was saying, “Oh my God, we’re channeling Bierstadt.” I even had his painting in my pocket which I referenced as my inspiration. You feel an enormous weight when you shoot in a place where so many great masters have already photographed like Ansel Adams and others but it was my first time ever being at Yosemite. I remember looking at it and thinking, of all the places I have ever been in the world, this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. There’s something about the scale that is so extraordinary. And it made me realize just how insignificant we are as a species.
JC: You make a much defined distinction on your website between fine art and editorial (commissioned) work...as well as advertising. With an ever shrinking editorial market, speaking in terms of percentages...what is your breakdown between editorial, commercial and personal work?
SW: Right now, I’m doing about 25% editorial and 25% commercial projects (that pays the bills) and about 50% on my own art. I am currently working on the Day to Night project having done about 30 of them, and I’d like to do 50 before creating a book. But these projects take a lot of time, research and clearance and the post production that goes into making these pictures is just enormous!
JC: Lastly, for those who may want to follow in your footsteps...what wisdom gained from experience...or advice...would you offer? Are you positive about the future of our industry in both print and digital forms? Any last thoughts you'd like to share?
SW: Set your goals. What’s success to you? What do you need to live on? Everyone is different. If you want to have a nice house, three kids, send them to college, live a good life, and go on vacation…then you’re going to need more money. If you don’t plan on getting married and you live simply and you’re a modest guy then you need a lot less money.
You also can never replace passion in this equation. Passion leads to success and that’s the single driving force for me...why I don’t get bored, why I don’t take anything for granted...it’s because I still love doing it! In a lot of ways Day to Night was created as a response to people saying that video was going to overtake still photography…and that stills were dead and nobody was going to do that anymore. And I took great offense to that concept. While I can appreciate video, the single image is what people remember. There is a power that the single image has that transcends any video done at the same time. You think we’ve gone far enough with stills? Look again…we’re just scratching the surface of what you can do with the still photograph!
I see a lot out there and what I see is people who have talent and work hard…or think they work hard…but the priority they need to get to that special place is going to escape them. They don’t understand that the level of passion and drive that you have to have to be really successful in this business today is amplified. Everybody has a camera and it’s incredible who you’re competing with. So my advice is something Jay Maisel once told me, “You gotta eat, sleep, breathe and drink it. And if you don’t do that, find something else to do!”
Peter Fetterman Gallery Exhibit: http://stephenwilkes.com/news/day-to-night-tunnel-view-yosemite-2014-peter-fetterman-gallery
New York Landmarks Conservancy: http://www.nylandmarks.org/
Save Ellis Island: http:/www.saveellisisland.org/
World Monuments Fund: http://www.wmf.org/
Burned Objects: http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/21/magazine/burnt-things.html
Facebook: Stephen Wilkes
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