“Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park,” 2015
When you first see a photograph by Stephen Wilkes from his “Day To Night” series—many of which can be seen in the recently published, beautifully designed monograph Stephen Wilkes: Day To Night—you’ll most likely experience two disparate sensations.
First, you’ll recognize the setting. Wilkes and his team have traveled to some of the world’s most well-known locations, including the Grand Canyon, Paris, Venice and several celebrated places in New York, including the Flatiron Building and Coney Island. In each image, the landscape is beautifully captured with vibrant color and incredible detail.
But as you study the light, you’ll feel a second sensation, a dissonance of sorts, that makes you question the photograph. The impression has nothing to do with the composition, per se. But you quickly realize the photograph, or, more precisely, the digital composite image isn’t depicting an instant or “decisive moment.” Instead, Wilkes constructs each photo by carefully combining and blending dozens of digital images together. In doing so, he expands that moment in each photograph into a 24-hour segment of time.
Take his image of Coney Island: On the right, you see the beach captured in the bright sunlight. But look at the opposite side, and you notice the amusement park rides are shot at night. There’s even motion blur in the red lights on the Ferris wheel.
The dissonance lasts for only a moment. But afterward, you look at the work anew, perhaps not only rethinking your notions of landscape photography but also how you create significant photographs in general. In other words, if we no longer need to look for a “decisive moment,” we can broaden our concept of photography or, as Wilkes does, meditate on how we actually see our world.
Wilkes finds this to be particularly important in this age of social media. “We live in a world where the act of seeing has become an endangered human experience,” says Wilkes. “I’ve been a witness to it over the last 10 years, going to these iconic places where so many people go.” What Wilkes has noticed is how, for many people, it’s more important to share an image of a place on their phone than to experience it.
But to create the “Day To Night” photographs, Wilkes must look at the landscape for 24 or even 36 hours at a time. So, for Wilkes, creating each “Day To Night” photo is a form of meditation.
But where did the idea of the “Day To Night” series come from? Wilkes says three different moments in his life helped him develop the idea.
The first, a LIFE magazine assignment from the mid-1990s, is intriguing because the image itself looks so strikingly different from those in the “Day To Night” series. It’s also an analog project (shot on film). Nevertheless, it’s this project that provided Wilkes with the conceptual framework for the entire series.
“In 1996, I was photographing Baz Luhrmann’s film ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” says Wilkes. “And LIFE magazine asked me to photograph the entire cast and crew…and the magazine saw it as a very panoramic kind of shot.” But when Wilkes arrived on the set, he saw a problem. “The main set…was actually square. So, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to make a panoramic photograph out of a square set.” Luckily, Wilkes remembered David Hockney’s photo-collage technique. Compositionally, Wilkes thought, “if I used that kind of a technique, I could take the square and open it up into a horizontal [rectangular] shape.”
Additionally, he realized that he could “bend” or “move” time if he shot this way. “I had Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the center of the image,” says Wilkes. “And they were embracing. But as I panned my camera to the right, there was a huge 25-foot-tall mirror on the set, which reflected Danes and DiCaprio and the whole cast and crew. So I said, ‘Everybody stay exactly as you are for this picture, except Claire and Leonardo. I need you to kiss for this one photograph.’ And so they kissed. And I came back to New York, and I put this entire collage of 250 images together by hand, which took me about a week.”
Then, he says, he stood there for a while just looking at it and taking it all in. “I remember being in my studio and saying to myself, ‘That is so cool. I’m changing time in a photograph,’” says Wilkes.
But to take this photo collage further, Wilkes would need to wait years, for computer processing power, camera technology and Photoshop to catch up with his vision in order to seamlessly merge all the still photos together.
In 2009, the second moment occurred: For this assignment, he was asked to shoot the High Line, which is an elevated linear park created from a former New York Central Railroad line on the west side of Manhattan, for New York magazine. “I knew about the High Line, and I started to study it to make this picture. I soon discovered that it has this unique perspective on New York, one that’s both intimate with the street and yet you could look up into the windows and buildings and see people.”
It dawned on Wilkes that the point of view reminded him of a painting by the Dutch Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder called “The Harvesters,” which is a canvas in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, also in New York. It’s a work of art the photographer had seen as a teenager, which would be the third moment, or memory, that helped him discover the “Day To Night” series.
In the monograph, Wilkes points out that Bruegel’s painting has a very similar elevated point of view to the High Line. In it, Bruegel depicts a group of people working in a wheat field. That canvas, says Wilkes, influenced the aesthetic of his own digital series of landscape photographs. “Everything in the painting has something to say,” Wilkes says in the book. “The painter was able to control the intimacy and breadth.” He also says that the artist seems to use the same figures in the background as in the foreground, as if Bruegel himself is bending time.
There’s also a pragmatic, compositional reason Wilkes employs an elevated viewpoint for his series: “From a perspective standpoint, when you get higher in elevation, your foreground, middle ground and background expands. And you’re able to have more depth in it. That’s something that’s very important to me.” Wilkes says that expanding each section allows him flexibility when compositing images from different times of the day.
It was while he was scouting for the right location and time to shoot the High Line that Wilkes had the actual epiphany of creating the “Day To Night” idea. “While I scouted from rooftops and buildings…I kept falling in love with this idea of how it changed over time,” he says. For instance, he enjoyed watching how, in the early morning light, “people were running and doing things, and then by lunchtime there were people eating… Then, at night, it was really kind of spooky. Honestly, I was having trouble deciding which time of day I like most.”
So he figured he would try to include the whole day in one image!
That’s essentially what he said during a somewhat perplexing phone call he had with the New York magazine photo editor. During that call, those three disparate moments, or memories—the Bruegel painting, the LIFE magazine photo collage and the High Line’s vantage point—came together in Wilkes’ mind as he suggested he shoot the New York assignment in “a day-to-night/north-to-south” style.
The baffled photo editor simply replied, “What are you talking about?”
Wilkes laughed as he admitted to her that he wasn’t sure how he’d do it, but he told her he wanted to try to combine these elements in an image that would show the High Line over the course of a 24-hour time span.
Wilkes said that subsequently, he had such a tremendous reaction to that High Line photograph that when he exhibited it at the first fine-art AIPAD show in New York after creating the High Line photo, he never sold an image quite as fast as he sold that image.
Since that first composite of the High Line in 2009, he’s created scores of “Day To Night” images.
Unlike the film-based photo collage from the 1990s, each image in the “Day To Night” series is entirely digital. Wilkes generally captures between 1,200 and 1,800 image files for each session, shot with a large-format, 4×5 camera and captured from a fixed camera angle. (In other words, he doesn’t move the camera around like he had in the LIFE magazine assignment.) To shoot, he’ll stay at a particular location for 24 to 36 hours at a time, perched 15 to 20 feet above the ground, or even higher, to capture the images.
Wilkes then selects 50 or so final images and works with his team to composite them together to produce one landscape. The process, from start to finish takes, on average, between three and four months.
In many ways, shooting from an elevated vantage point is an aesthetic choice. But in some cases, particularly when shooting in the wilderness, Wilkes knows he needs to be off the ground for safety reasons. The photo shoot for the “Grizzly Bears at Bella Coola Valley, British Columbia, Canada,” is one such example.
To create this image, which helped Wilkes secure a grant from National Geographic to photograph Canadian endangered species and habitats, Wilkes said he needed to be high off the ground. “We’re on a 15-foot scaffolding and essentially right on the edge of the river,” Wilkes says.
But at one point, one of the grizzly bears he was photographing came within 6 or 7 feet of them.
“I’m so terrified because he’s so huge…with nails that look like Freddy Krueger’s! We’re 15 feet up, but when the bear is [standing upright with arms extended], he’s almost as tall.” Luckily, Wilkes had discussed the possibility of such a scenario taking place with the local parks department. In such cases, Wilkes says, the park officials cautioned the photographer: “You’ve got to be confident and don’t project or show fear. If the bears start coming towards you, start talking to them.” Luckily, after waiting a few tense minutes, the bear’s body language changed, and it walked away from Wilkes and his crew. However, that bear did make it into the final image. “That grizzly is actually in the final shot,” says Wilkes, “on the far left edge in the frame along the grass.”
In many ways, Wilkes says, whether he’s shooting in remote areas like Greenland or in the center of a busy metropolis like New York, he’s always at the mercy of the elements and his subjects, whether human or animal.
One of his favorite stories illustrating this is about shooting in Serengeti National Park. Wilkes said he had studied the landscape and decided on a particular view that would make an intriguing composition. “But when you create a composition,” Wilkes says, you’re really just hoping that the wildlife shows up in the right place and that “everything comes together.” So, there’s an element of chance in every “Day To Night” photograph.
For instance, as you can see in that image, zebras had come in on the right side of the picture in the early morning. But by mid-afternoon, there had been little activity on the left side of the image. But what Wilkes hadn’t realized was that the area in the lower left would be “a natural place where these elephants would go into the watering hole. But when I made the composition, I had no idea that that was going to be the case.
“But the way time was changing,” Wilkes says, “that had to happen in the afternoon, at about 4 o’clock.” That’s when he heard this really loud noise behind the scaffolding.
“I hear this sound, and it turns out to be a pissed-off elephant directly behind our scaffolding. And when I see her there, she’s got her ears flapping and she’s raising her trunk,” which Wilkes says elephants often do before they’re about to charge at you.
The reason she was unhappy was that it appeared Wilkes’ scaffold was blocking her path to the watering hole. Nevertheless, she eventually calmed down, walked around the scaffolding and made it into the watering hole…and into the photograph. “She walks around us, at which point I ran back to the camera to catch her,” says Wilkes. “At that moment, she’s literally just dropping down into the water.” Her position in the photograph turned out to be essential to the composition. But it’s an element Wilkes acknowledges he had no control over.
“Visually, she’s an incredible anchor to the scene, by bringing your eye all the way into the scene,” he says. “And it happened at the perfect moment in time.”
You can find the photography book Stephen Wilkes: Day To Night on Amazon and other book retail outlets. Stephen Wilkes’ fine-art prints have also appeared in the fine-art exhibition “A Witness To Change,” which ran from Sept. 12 through Oct. 26, 2019, at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York. To learn more about Wilkes, go to stephenwilkes.com.