Westport photographer’s focus: ‘My fear of missing something drives me’
Updated 2:14 pm, Thursday, February 11, 2016
His face has been on the receiving end of a 100-mph-plus shot from tennis pro Andre Agassi — and he still captured an image of the moment, despite blood gushing from his cheek, streaming down his face.
He chronicled the groundbreaking changes as China was transformed from Mao’s totalitarian state to a burgeoning economy of high-tech factories and their workers.
He has photographed some of the world’s most iconic places, parks and events, but provides a unique glimpse, through his vantage point.
He acts as psychologist, photographer and artist. In a world where people specialize in highly specific fields, Westporter Stephen Wilkes uses a liberal arts background to explore the world through the artistic medium of photography.
As long as photography has existed it has been defined as a single moment in time, Wilkes’ Day to Night collection, featured on the cover of January’s National Geographic magazine, expands that definition to narrative storytelling and compresses time into one image.
Driven by passion
Wilkes became fascinated with photography when he took a scientific photography class as he started high school at Great Neck South in Long Island, N.Y. The class, which involved high-speed photography, required Wilkes to shoot through a microscope and capture images such as a brick falling and shattering on the ground.
"I’ve always been fascinated by science and discovery, and somehow I took these pictures in the microscope and then it just was like an aha moment,” Wilkes recalled in a recent interview. “I mean my dad thought I was going to be a doctor.
“I took a picture through a microscope and my life changed … I started taking pictures and said maybe I’m pretty good at this and I didn’t really think I was good at anything else … But the truth was it wasn’t even a matter of me thinking I was any good at it, it was a matter of the way it made me feel, it became a passion and when you’re driven by passion, it changes everything because it is no longer work."
Meshing history with art is a distinctive element of Wilkes’ work. His experience studying art history at the high school level in a class that blended social studies and art history laid the groundwork for his fascination with how both complement each other. "Somehow when I could see the paintings, when I could understand the story behind the painting, something clicked for me,” he said. “It’s something I connected to and I think it’s a thread in my work today, I’m very drawn to history.”
In those classes, he was introduced to Dutch landscape painters. "I was exposed to certain artists like Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch,” he said, “and just became very obsessed with art history and it really had a profound effect on me in terms of the way I saw things in scale and understanding the landscape and narrative storytelling and all the things that I have sort of evolved into — a lot of those came from those very early formative years."
At 13, Wilkes started working for a photographer, who took photos of his Bar Mitzvah, to further his craft. He learned wedding photography by working on the weekends. By the time he was 15, Wilkes was shooting his own assignment for his own business, "I was so focused, I knew I wanted to be a photographer already," he said.
When it came time to choose a college, Wilkes initially wanted to attend a more technically oriented school to hone his photography skills. However, Wilkes’ instructor in a class he took at Parsons in New York, photographer and mentor Bob Adelman, counseled him to pursue a more well-rounded collegiate experience.
Adelman asked Wilkes if he wanted his pictures to speak to people, and when Wilkes responded "yes," Adelman responded, "Then get yourself a great liberal arts education. If your work is going to speak to people, you need to understand what the world is about,” Wilkes recounted. “And one other thing, kid, make sure you learn business because most photographers are lousy businessmen." Wilkes took Adelman’s advice and enrolled in the dual-major marketing and photography program at Syracuse University.
When Wilkes was a junior at Syracuse, he met his most influential mentor, renowned photographer Jay Masiel, who employed Wilkes as his assistant. After seeing Masiel’s work in Life magazine and feeling drawn to it, Wilkes reached out to him on the phone and Masiel happened to answer — a chance encounter that Wilkes described as the beginning of a pivotal friendship. "That was a big change in my career because I learned from a great master photographer the level you had to get to. Jay used to preach to me all the time that your talent means nothing you’re only as good if you outwork everybody."
In the spring of 1978, Wilkes was a second semester junior and saw an opportunity that could possibly shape his photographic skills: a school-sponsored trip to China. He pitched the dean of visual performing arts the idea of having him document the trip if the university covered his costs, which the school agreed to. "That was a life-changing experience because I went there with a sole mission which was to create a body of work that would define me and who I was as a photographer," Wilkes said. "China did that for me."
That following summer, Wilkes’ work ethic catapulted him into a special place in the eyes of Maisel. As Maisel’s assistant, Wilkes often worked from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day, but something else set him apart. Wilkes was captivated by learning from Maisel. Like all of Maisel’s prior assistants, Wilkes would pick up the film and set it up, but what distinguished Wilkes was that instead of going home, he would look at and examine every single roll of Maisel’s film. When Maisel would ask Wilkes if the film was processed, Wilkes would say yes and tell Maisel, "By the way, you have a great shot here." Maisel invited Wilkes to help edit his photos and that started their friendship.
After being promoted from assistant and serving two years under Maisel’s tutelage as his associate, Wilkes broke off amicably — the two remain good friends after 38 years — and started on his own path. Wilkes moved his thousands of slides and gear into the studio apartment of his then-girlfriend Bette, who is now his wife and executive producer, and "we just started to figure it out."
Return to China
It’s no surprise since Wilkes’ transformative trip to China in 1978, that he returned to take photos for a project called China Old & New, "I saw it two years after the Cultural Revolution, two years after Mao had died. Everybody dressed in blue unless you were military (green), the only billboards anywhere were propaganda art, there were no cars everybody rode bikes … now everybody drives cars, everybody dresses in black. The radical change in China, the speed is the greatest compression of a culture in terms of evolution in modern day history."
At the forefront of the project was Wilkes’ desire to depict the speed and scale of the changes. Wilkes was drawn to places from the old China, such as the Gobi desert, to see if he could find places that reminded him of that 1978 trip, but at the same time he was inspecting what the new China had evolved by going into places like the largest sock factory in the world where he sought to "humanize the Chinese worker."
In his factory shoots, Wilkes tried to get the workers to look at his camera. The sock factory, Wilkes said, was "melding state-of-the-art technology with human labor in a way I’d never seen before. I would always try to get one person to look at me … the power of her gaze at me said everything to me … they’re all wearing uniforms except for when you get to their shoes and that’s where you see the individuality which is so precious there," he recounted.
Finding a way
Wilkes has a knack for getting the shots he wants, even if the subject is uncooperative. In early-2000s Toronto, Wilkes was set to shoot a billboard for Bell Telephone in Canada, and the subject was Toronto Raptor player Vince Carter dunking a basketball. Because Carter was specifically to dunk the basketball for the billboard image, Wilkes had been studying every dunk in Carter’s arsenal and tested lighting for the set for eight hours. After arriving an hour late, Carter told Wilkes, "Listen, I’m not going to be doing any stuffs today," and Wilkes responded, "Have they let you know what this is for? It’s going to be for an 80-foot wide billboard, I don’t know if a jumpshot is going to make it, man."
After Wilkes told Carter to hang out and think about it, Wilkes’ young son Sam asked Carter if he could do a type of dunk he called a "honey dip." After Sam explained the dunk to Carter, the two bonded. Throughout the rest of the shoot, Wilkes relayed his directions to Carter through his son, who would ask Carter to do specific dunks. "He did 250 stuffs for me, I swear to God, the only reason he did it is because of my son," Wilkes said.
Day to Night
Wilkes’ Day to Night project evolved from a commission from Life magazine to do a panoramic gatefold of the cast and crew of Baz Luhrmann’s movie, “Romeo + Juliet.” When he arrived on set, it turned out to be a square, presenting a challenge for Wilkes. Inspired by David Hockney’s collages, Wilkes shot 250 images of the cast and crew. He had stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes embracing at a photo’s center. Further to the right there is a huge mirror, and in the mirror, the couple is reflected. Noticing this, Wilkes asked the two to kiss and as he pieced the collage, the focus changed from the center of the photo where they were embracing to the mirror where the image of the two kissing is seen.
"I come back to New York and I put these 250 pictures together and all the sudden I’m looking at them and I noticed wow this is so cool, I’m actually changing time with a single photograph and that concept stayed with me for 13 more years and now technology is really allowing me to meld time seamlessly," Wilkes said.
The project progressed organically as Wilkes was on an assignment from New York magazine about six years ago to photograph the High Line in lower New York City. In preparing for the shot, Wilkes observed the dynamic and unique perspective of the city from the High Line. He saw it as both an intimate view, because people on the street could be recognized, but also a view that presented a different perspective because of the nearby high-rise buildings. That prompted Wilkes to tell New York magazine that he needed a crane to do the assignment justice. "I can’t really decide — I love it at 12 noon when everybody’s having lunch on 10th Avenue, but it’s really spooky at night when the lights turn yellow. So I said what happens if I did day to night, north to south on the High Line? ... The idea of putting a face on time on compressing time in a single photograph was a very unique thing for people to see and it touched a chord in people almost on an emotional level."
For his Day to Night rendition of the cherry blossoms at West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., Wilkes and his assistant sat on an 80-foot lift truck photographing for 18 consecutive hours, starting at 3 a.m., to capture 3,711 photos.
Wilkes’ Day to Night photos of the Serengeti Desert in Tanzania spanned an even more grueling 26 hours as did his recent National Geographic cover photo of Yosemite National Park.
Although some people can’t imagine staying put for 26 hours, much less working that long, Wilkes embraces the process. Over the course of the day, Wilkes tells his assistant to mark specific moments that he sees as "magical.” He considers his process as collecting moments, "Not only am I physically exhausted, but it’s the mental exhaustion because I literally photograph nonstop.
“The Serengeti picture is 26 hours of looking, cocking the shot and looking. This is not a time lapse, this is me actually sitting there seeing moments,” he said. “As things open, I have to get those pictures. I have to get what I call the naked pictures because that is what allows me to change time seamlessly. It’s a time working puzzle in my head … it never stops. I do it because I think I’ve created the ultimate puzzle in my mind. It ties into this fear of missing something. My fear of missing something drives me."