Stephen Wilkes: Bodies Of Work

Wilkes’ photography of Ellis Island helped in the efforts to raise some $6 million for restoration of the south side of the island. It’s an example of how fine art can be a driver of greater historical understanding of places and events long gone. Above: Another Wilkes beach photograph.

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 Chinese factory worker amid a sea of machinery.

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.

Ellis Island.

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."

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