Five Minutes with Photographer Stephen Wilkes
For his epic Day to Night panoramas, photographer Stephen Wilkes rises at daybreak and climbs into a cherry picker that will serve as his home for the next 15 hours. Over the course of the day, he will shoot more than 1,000 photos of what unfolds below him.
After months of editing, only about 50 shots make it into the final product: a 10-foot wide landscape that captures not only a sense of place, but also a sense of time.
Sunrise, noon and sunset share space in the same picture. A biker who rode into Stephen’s frame at noon passes a police officer who patrolled the area hours earlier. In the morning, a child struggling on his rollerblades is unaware of the elderly woman in a wheelchair who will pass the same spot at dusk.
Global Yodel caught up with Stephen Wilkes to learn more about the process of putting together these massive masterpieces. Read on learn the inspiration behind the Day to Night series, and to find out if it’s true he doesn’t take a bathroom break during the 15-hour shoots.
Take us through the process of shooting a Day to Night composition.
I’m hyper-focused on what’s happening in front of me. I am always afraid of missing something. It’s not like I just sit there and run a camera; these photos are of very specific moments that I have seen and that I’ve chosen. Everything that happens on the ground is coded in real time and the narrative evolves as the day goes on.
One of the things that’s both thrilling and uneasy is that I have no control once I am up in the air. At the end of the day so many things have to go just right. I can’t express that enough. We don’t know if the weather will stay good. Will the winds pick up; will I even be able to complete this thing?
I’ve done more than 20 of these and each time I refine the process. My son is a musician. He said, “Dad, this is your symphony.”
What’s going on in your head for those 15 hours?
I get lost. I describe creating these photos as a real time Rubik’s Cube. It’s a fluid, moving puzzle in my brain. People are fascinated by this. They say, “I can’t watch TV for 15 hours!” To me these photos are the ultimate crossword puzzle. I guess this will help my case for not getting Alzheimer’s in 50 years.
Level with us. Do you really not take bathroom breaks?
Let’s just say I have a routine before I do a Day to Night shoot. It’s a challenge; there’s no question about it.
What was the inspiration for the Day to Night series?
I was very blessed. When I was in 9th grade, I had a wonderful teacher who exposed me to art history for the first time. The class would go to museums and I remember very vividly going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time. There was a painting, The Harvesters, that – when it was created 15th century – literally reinterpreted what a landscape could be.
I remember walking up to the painting and there were these little people in it. I could almost feel the sweat on their brows as they were harvesting the hay. I thought it was amazing that something that small could have such gesture and meaning, and such a powerful narrative.
What drives you?
I am interested in pushing boundaries and creating visceral experiences. The idea of melding a day into one photo seamlessly changes the way we see the world. I think others will explore elements of time and compressing time into a single image.
It’s such a magical time to be a photographer. We can push the boundaries of the technology, and of what is possible.
Check out more of Stephen’s Day to Night series at his website here.
Want to dive deeper into the detail of Stephen’s process? Check out these amazing videos of the final compositions.