Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Stephen Wilkes: Bodies Of Work

By Russell Hart, Photography By Stephen Wilkes Published in Photographer Profiles
In projects ranging from China to Ellis Island in New York, Stephen Wilkes has become recognized as one of the top photography artists working today. He builds cohesive bodies of work, revealing the depth and breadth of his subjects. Above and below right: China; A corridor at Ellis Island.
In projects ranging from China to Ellis Island in New York, Stephen Wilkes has become recognized as one of the top photography artists working today. He builds cohesive bodies of work, revealing the depth and breadth of his subjects. Above and below right: China; A corridor at Ellis Island.
From the "Bethlehem Steel" project; Another haunting interior from Ellis Island

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 4x5 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."

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