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."