Insights and ideas from Stephen Wilkes
Capturing life's mysteries
After looking through a microscope at a very young age, Stephen Wilkes became captivated by the sense of discovery, of looking deeper at the world. He set out to find ways to translate that experience through photography. Today, his photographs combine a love of powerful graphic images and a sense of humanity, with images that look as if they were captured from important moments within a documentary film. In his personal work, he sees pleasing palettes of impressionism in walls and ceilings of peeling paint in abandoned rooms on Ellis Island, and in his latest personal project, Day to Night™, he captures changing time within a single photograph. In his commercial work, he tells irresistible narratives that open people’s eyes and minds to new possibilities. Wilkes' award-winning photographs have been showcased in magazines such as Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated, Time, LIFE Magazine, New York Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. He recently sat down with us to talk about his approach to photography and his long and distinguished career.
Photoshop.com: Which piece of equipment couldn’t you live without and why?
Stephen Wilkes: I think photographers overemphasize equipment. Somebody might come into my studio and say, “Wow, look at these amazing cameras.” Then they’ll say they like a particular photo, and it turns out I snapped it on a $5 plastic camera. It’s not about the camera or the technologies. Without my eyes and the ability to see light, color, gesture, and design, I would be lost—or I’d be doing something entirely different.
Photoshop.com: What role does Adobe® Photoshop® software play in your photography process?
Stephen Wilkes: Especially in my newest body of work, Day to Night, Photoshop plays a critical role. The series is based on the concept of changing time within a single photograph. I look for an iconic and epic view of the City and over a 12- to 15-hour period, I photograph from a fixed perspective, capturing every great moment I see, from day to night. On average I shoot between 1,200 and 1,400 images, which are then edited down to approximately 50 of the best moments of the morning, noon, and night. We then blend these images together using Photoshop, and create a single image, seamlessly showing the passage of time within a single photograph. The work literally wouldn’t have been possible without using layers and Photomerge in Photoshop.
Photoshop.com: What are your favorite features of Adobe Photoshop CS6?
Stephen Wilkes: With Photoshop CS6, I can take a single photo or series of photos and immediately begin to see relationships without the technical limitations I used to worry about. I love the new Content Aware Patch because I can be more precise with my edits, which helps immensely when we create a rough comp on-site for Day to Night. I also like the improvements to Photomerge. Both of these features are incredibly fast. These innovations now allow us to put a comp together in real time on location. I see how everything is coming together, and then I'm able to get right back to work behind the lens.
Photoshop.com: Your projects include commercial, fine art, and editorial—how do you work in such varied areas, yet still maintain a consistent level of quality and recognizable style?
Stephen Wilkes: To me, style is when you feel yourself in a photograph. It’s a visual language that takes years to emerge. I started taking pictures when I was 12 years old and, for me, the words love and passion don’t come close to describing what I do. If I feel too comfortable, then I'm simply not working hard enough. This attitude keeps me focused and hungry, regardless of what I'm shooting. Whether I’m doing a commercial job or a fine art project, I start with the same mindset every time: “You are only as good as your last image.”
Photoshop.com: What artists have inspired you in your life?
Stephen Wilkes: Among my great inspirations are the staggering contributions of Picasso, Monet, and Rene Magritte, whose L'empire des lumieres hung in my room growing up as a child. On an almost subconscious level it inspired my Day to Night series. As far as contemporary artists, I admire the work of Gerhard Richter and his radical, very large, and beautiful abstract paintings, as well as Anselm Kiefer. In the photography realm, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Irving Penn, and Alfred Eisenstaedt—these people all literally changed the world through the power of images.
Photoshop.com: What was the motivation behind your Day to Night series?
Stephen Wilkes: Day to Night evolved out of a project from 16 years ago, when LIFE Magazine commissioned me for The Big Picture shoot for the 1996 film Romeo and Juliet, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. They wanted me to capture the whole cast and crew in one big photo, but on arrival in Mexico City, I discovered that the main set for the film was square, which didn’t lend well to a panoramic image. At that time, David Hockney was making photo mosaics out of hundreds of images and pasting them together. I was fascinated with his work, and decided to try applying it to this image. The Hockney technique would allow me to take the square set, and open it up horizontally. I took 250 pictures and in the middle of the photograph, DiCaprio and Danes were embracing. I took a photograph of their embrace, and then panned the camera right, where I found a large mirror reflecting them and a part of the cast and crew. I asked them to kiss when I photographed the reflection. I then collaged all the images together by hand creating a panoramic image. The kiss in the reflection, versus the embrace in the center image, made it look as if time was changing in the photo. This concept of changing time in a photograph stayed with me for 16 years. I was then commissioned to create the definitive photograph, The High Line, of the elevated park in New York City for New York Magazine. Throughout my scouting to create this particular image, I was having a difficult time deciding which time of day I most liked viewing the High Line. The physical route of the High Line suddenly became a timeline in my mind, and I came up with the idea of shooting Day to Night, moving south to north on the High Line. Photoshop allowed me to rediscover the concept of time change seamlessly.
Photoshop.com: How did you create the results for some of your Day to Night images?
Stephen Wilkes: I love the photo of Times Square for Day to Night, because of the scale and magnitude and the number of people and complexity. The Coney Island image was extraordinary for its technical complexity. I shoot with a 4x5 camera with a digital back. Shooting as many as 1,400 images…just imagine doing that with film; it would be 1,400 sheets of 8x10 film—impossible!
Photoshop.com: Describe a favorite photo you’ve shot and what grabs you about it.
Stephen Wilkes: One that sticks with me is an image of Ellis Island’s corridor #9. It is a haunting, eerie picture looking down the corridor of what used to be the main hospital where patients who had an infectious disease were detained before they could enter the United States. The day I was shooting was summer solstice, and a golden glow filled the corridor. The resulting image was spiritual, ancestral, and human in ways I can’t explain. The picture is all done with film, there is no digital, no lighting, and no retouching—the light, patina, and the texture and color on the walls cried out for film photography. Some of my exposures for that series were several minutes long, something that was impossible to do with digital capture at the time. One of the great benefits of doing an analog film project like Ellis Island, Ghosts of Freedom, is that it forces you to develop a pure mastery of craft. I created a zone system for shooting transparency film while creating those images. It’s because of my work on Ellis that I've been able to apply this same craft to my digital images—allowing me to continue to push the boundaries of the medium.
Photoshop.com: As an award-winning photographer, which awards have you received that are most meaningful to you and why?
Stephen Wilkes: There are two that stand out: the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography was gratifying. The Breakthrough Photography Award from Adobe is also enormous because it gave me further incentive to push the digital medium and continue to grow, learn, and do more.
Photoshop.com: How do you know that a photo is really good?
Stephen Wilkes: The mystery and meaning of every photo unfolds for me over time in the same manner it does to all viewers. Sometimes, I have no idea where the connections, thoughts, and synchronicity come from, but, through intuition and years of experience, the magic is always there. A good photograph transcends audiences—age, gender, ethnicity, location. Good art touches you in some way, there's a connection. Everyone has favorites among collections or specific photos, but my job is to hopefully keep raising the bar, and evolving the process. What makes something great? The only answer is if it has an emotional resonance with you, the viewer. I hope that people experience what I felt while I was standing in that spot—the energy and life, the struggle and the triumph, the simple beauty or the mystery of the unknown that infused the moment.