If you could go back in time and ask 13-year-old Stephen Wilkes what he wanted to be when he grew up, he’d answer with a certainty few of us could have claimed at his age: a professional photographer.
In fact, Wilkes didn’t even wait to grow up to start his photographic career. He traces its beginning to his own bar mitzvah, a fitting occasion given his avowedly spiritual connection to the medium. Along with the hora and the challah, the event’s official photographer shot a candlelight portrait of Wilkie, as he was known to his peers. "The image had a profound effect on me," Wilkes recalls. "It made me think that I wanted to be doing something that creative."
Wilkes signed on as assistant to the photographer who created that seminal portrait, and by the time he was 15, he was on his own, shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs in and around his hometown of Great Neck, on New York’s Long Island. He also pursued scientific photography, taking weekend classes in which he learned photomicrography and high-speed stroboscopic techniques.
"I was always interested in the process of discovery, maybe because my father was a scientist," says Wilkes, who still thinks photography’s true purpose is to reveal things in ways that can’t ordinarily be seen. "But then, both my father and the photographer I assisted said I should just take pictures on the side and get a day job in business or medicine."
Unlike many kids interested in the arts, Wilkes clung to his dream. He soon discovered, though, that he didn’t understand what was needed to realize it. An epiphany came in his sophomore year of high school, when he took a class at New York City’s Parsons School of Design with famed documentary and editorial photographer Bob Adelman.
"At that point, I thought I had my career path mapped out, starting with going to school at RIT," he says. "I told Bob about my plans, and he said, ‘RIT? So you’re just going for a tech background?’ This was when RIT was more of a trade school. Then Bob declared, ‘If you want your pictures to speak, you should get a liberal arts education.’"
Wilkes ended up enrolling at Syracuse University so he could do coursework at the estimable S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, which counts among its other alumni such photo luminaries as Joe McNally and Eric Meola. It was an environment in which he knew he could learn not only photographic skills, but also marketing strategy.
"I thought, if corporations can market themselves successfully, why can’t a small businessperson do the same?" Wilkes says. "I wanted to brand myself just the way Coke did."
In the summer before his junior year at Syracuse, Wilkes assisted a photographer who’s living proof that you can achieve commercial success, but still be highly creative—the masterful Jay Maisel, who, along with Adelman, was one of Wilkes’ chief mentors. When the academic year began, Wilkes lobbied the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts to take him along as official photographer on a three-week student tour of China. "I shot like hell over there," he says. When he got back, he showed his photographs to Maisel, and Maisel realized that there was little more he could teach the enterprising Wilkes. "He said, ‘You shouldn’t be assisting me anymore,’" Wilkes remembers.
Wilkes had a revelation during that trip. "I realized that I needed a body of work with a stamp on it," he explains. "That’s what defines a photographer’s style—bodies of work that are consistent." In the years since, Wilkes has created numerous major bodies of work on subjects that engage him. One of his first was a year-long study of California’s iconic Pacific-hugging Route 1, shot with a mix of 35mm and the panoramic, medium-format Fuji GX617. With classic images of posing surfer dudes, Venetian sunglass hawkers and beachfront bikini contests, the work became 1987’s California One: The Pacific Coast Highway, Wilkes’ first book. Other subjects have ranged from environmental nudes to Chinese megafactories. "You can photograph lots of different things," says Wilkes, "but you have to stay consistent."
A combination of style and versatility is surely what makes Wilkes so successful with his editorial and advertising clients, which have included magazines such as Vanity Fair, New York Magazine and Condé Nast Traveler, and companies such as Honda, GE and Verizon. And it may help, given public disillusion with the corporate sphere, that part of what makes the photographer’s work consistent is its humanism. Even when humans aren’t individually recognizable, such as in his recent "Day To Night" project or when they’re physically absent, such as in his poignant images of decaying interiors at New York City’s Ellis Island immigration center, they always inhabit his work.
"At Ellis, I took a kind of architectural approach, seeing it as lines and textures and colors," he remembers. "Then, as I worked, I started to feel the energy and emotion in those empty rooms." Wilkes’ experience is yet more evidence that some of the greatest art achieves an emotional life by formal means—and Wilkes’ Ellis Island images go far beyond the decorative despite their often dazzling filigree of peeling paint and invading vines. They echo with the voices of would-be Americans, especially those confined to the island’s medical facilities because of their physical or mental health.
Wilkes toted his 4×5 view camera through the corridors of Ellis Island for the better part of five years, from 1998 to 2003, when ongoing restoration began to push him out. A board member of the Save Ellis Island Foundation, he’s proposing that the last unrestored portions of the island’s buildings be turned into a sort of historical terrarium, kept in suspended animation with glass enclosures for the public to view. Whether his plan succeeds or not, the images in Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom, Wilkes’ second book, preserve the ruins’ "amazing intersection between man and nature," as the photographer describes it.
Wilkes’ most recent project addresses an altogether different kind of intersection—one that can’t be seen with the naked eye, yet that records a more transient time span. In "Day To Night," Wilkes captures a single scene from the b
reak of dawn until dark. Half the scene is in daylight and half as it appears at night, artificial lights blazing. In between is a subtle gradation that relies on careful digital compositing of roughly 50 separate exposures culled from at least 1,200 shots, each made with an 80-megapixel, single-shot digital back on a 4×5 view camera. The individual frames aren’t fired by time-lapse, but rather are made one by one by Wilkes, which is why the photographer describes the end result as "street photography on a massive scale."
While the entire body of "Day To Night" relies on postproduction—each image can require up to three months of computer work, with as many as 30 iterations before it’s ready to print at sizes nearly eight feet across—it’s a natural outgrowth of what Wilkes has done before. "I couldn’t have done ‘Day To Night’ if I hadn’t done Ellis Island," he says. "Ellis brought me to a certain technical level at which I could do what I wanted in-camera, rather than having to make corrections after the fact."
The "Day To Night" work also demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between Wilkes’ personal projects and his commercial work. The technique occurred to him when he was looking for a way to capture the energy and activity of New York’s unique High Line city park while on assignment for Jody Quon, then photo director at New York Magazine.
The "Day To Night" project has a natural connection to Wilkes’ other bodies of work. Call it a certain consistency. "It’s all about the effect of time, history and decay on a place," he explains. Yet the project also represents Wilkes’ ongoing drive to try new things—his lifelong craving for discovery.
"I try to push myself into areas that aren’t comfortable," he says. "In this case, I was excited by the idea of putting an entire day into one image. Basically, I wanted to find out how much farther I could go with a still photograph."
See more of Stephen Wilkes’ far-ranging bodies of work at stephenwilkes.com.
Saving Ellis Island: Wilkes On His Work Ethic
|"On my greatest day at Ellis, I took three pictures that are featured in the book—one of the old nurses’ quarters, one in the TB ward that shows the Statue of Liberty reflected in a bathroom mirror and one of a doorway off Corridor Nine with overgrowth all around it, which ended up on the back cover of the book. I shot 78 sheets of 4×5 Velvia in Fuji Quickload packets on those three scenes. The next day, when I was dropping my daughter off at the school bus, my assistant called from the photo lab where he was picking up the processed film. ‘Are you sitting down?’ he said. ‘Because every sheet of film is black.’
"I was devastated at first because I knew these were special pictures. And then, I decided I just couldn’t accept it. So I diagnosed the problem, which was a malfunction of the Readyload back in which it wasn’t engaging the film packets at the flange, and therefore hadn’t uncovered the film for the exposures when I slid out the sleeve. That was Friday; on Monday, we went back to Ellis and I reshot all those pictures. The pictures in the book are the reshoots.
"When I revisited the scene of the Statue of Liberty reflection three weeks later, the picture I’d taken a second time was gone. The mirror had fallen into the sink and shattered. If I hadn’t been determined to go back right away and re-create the picture, I never would have gotten it."