Whether shooting Jason Kidd for Sports Illustrated or the anonymous maintainers of Times Square’s “guts” for the New York Times Magazine, Stephen Wilkes frames his subjects to reveal a truth about them. He captures the humanity of a glistening Chinese skyscraper, of an Ellis Island office a century removed from the last huddled masses it welcomed. His impressive career encompasses editorial, advertising, and fine art work of equal skill and renown. All are united by his attention to detail and his keen sense of the eye’s hidden rhythm.
Time, Portfolio, and Vanity Fair are just a few of the many glossies featuring Wilkes’ images. His photojournalism transitions naturally into fine art, which he approaches as social documentary. This was nowhere more true than in his images of contemporary China, a country he had last seen in 1978, just two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. “Whole cities had changed, they weren’t even recognizable,” he says. “Because of my unique perspective, I had a true concept of what China was versus what China has become. One of the things I was drawn to was humanizing the factory worker.” His method of humanizing the worker relied on capturing what he calls the “epic quality” of China’s factory buildings and their cavernous, glimmering interiors. A sense of uniformity pervades the images, with shimmering steel filling a room populated by workers wearing dull orange shirts. Carefully framed and symmetrically balanced the human subjects seem as vulnerable as Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. The image on his website set outdoors echoes this symmetry, while foregrounding the loneliness of the single worker living—for that that moment—between the buildings.
His approach to fine art, editorial work, and even advertising is informed by his understanding of photography as “the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things.” This idea, featured on his website and excerpted from a Henri Cartier-Bresson essay, runs throughout his work. It is nowhere clearer than in our featured image, a shot of the Highline that appeared in New York Magazine. The shot appealed to Wilkes because of the “intimacy” it offered with the buildings. But shooting from rooftops didn’t satisfy him. “Everything was a little too high,” he said. “I was losing the intimacy.” So he shot from a cherry picker at points throughout the day, then worked with a retoucher to electronically blend the images together. He wanted to capture the floating, expansive feeling that had drawn him to the Highline to begin with, and settled on a 17th Street location. This ended up being key, as the other challenge of the shoot was finding an effective transition point between day and night shots. Wilkes picked a good spot.
Wilkes shot this image using a 39 megapixel digital back on a 4 x 5 camera. He embraces large-format photography because it gives his all-important details greater depth. “So much of my work is about levels of story,” he says. He rotated the camera manually on a tripod throughout the day as he shot tons of images of the Highline while different street scenes unfolded within his frame (“The last thing you want to do is come back to the studio and have this great picture but realize you’re missing something”). He varied his exposure throughout, keeping a constant f-stop but varying the shutter speed to allow for proper exposure as the sun set. Periodically he and his retoucher, who was in the cherry picker with him, would load images onto a laptop and start creating rough comps to make sure he was getting what he needed. The final image was created by simply stitching together multiple images in Photoshop.
Wilkes’s success is due in no small part to his executive producer. She knows him well; in fact, they’ve been married 26 years. “People either think it is great or that we are nuts,” he says. “But it works for us.” Long-standing relationships have been crucial to his success, as a lesson he learned from his father demonstrates: treat every job like your first one. The Highline shot underscored the joy of working with supportive colleagues. “The great thing about working with people who trust you to do what you do [is] you can take something that is really interesting but take it to another level,” he said. “That’s always exciting when you can take something that’s unfamiliar for some people, and familiar for others and make something dramatically different.”
Wilkes was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
Wilkes: Changing time in a single photograph is a very interesting concept. The genesis of this idea really happened many years ago when I was working for Life magazine on “a big picture”. They hired me to photograph Claire Danes and Leonardo Dicaprio as Romeo and Juliet, and I had an opportunity to photograph them along with the entire cast and crew in Mexico City where they were filming. We spent about four days waiting to actually get the entire cast and crew into this one photograph and Life had asked me to create a panoramic gatefold. When we got to the set, I realized that the set was actually a huge square. So I decided to take the square and break it apart, ala David Hockney, using individual images. I ended up shooting over 250 images that I pasted together by hand. The interesting time aspect came into play when in the centre of the photograph is where the stars are, Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes, they are literally in a moment of embrace when everybody else, cast and crew, is surrounding them. To the right side of the photograph is a huge mirror, probably 20 feet in height. I asked them to kiss for the reflection image. So the reflection does not match the centre embrace, they are kissing in the reflection. When you look at the photograph quickly you think the image in the mirror is a reflection. But then you realize that the reflection is a time change and a completely different moment. That idea stayed with me for a while.
F STOP: A lot of your work deals with time: blurred motion and long exposures. What appeals to you about it?
Wilkes: It’s true of some of my work, especially the China series where I shoot long exposures so you don’t see people. I am interested in creating voids in physical space. If I am shooting architecture I want your focus to be on the architecture. Usually, It’s just a single element that I am drawn to. I’m interested in scale and the context of humanity within that scale. A lot of my China work delves into that. By the same token, I do shoot single decisive moments. I look for a certain type of spontaneity. I’ve been known to wait hours to get it, patience is a photographers secret weapon. I work on both ends of that spectrum, it really depends on the story I am trying to tell and what I am photographing.
F STOP: How did you become interested in photography and what was your path to becoming a professional photographer?
Wilkes: My first photographs were taken through a microscope when I was twelve years old. That shot of a paramecium sort of changed my life. The combination of seeing a microscopic world and actually holding a photograph in my hand for the first time excited me in a way I had never felt about anything. I had a portrait done of me and my twin brother by a candle light at our bar mitzvah and I remember looking at the photo and thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, I wanted to learn from this guy. So I ended up working for the photographer for almost a year in Jamaica Queens every Saturday. By the time I was 15 I already knew how to make the wedding albums, where the prints were made, and how to do the double exposure of the couple in the champagne glass. I started my own little business and I had cards printed up. By the time I was 16, I was doing weddings, special events, whatever I could do as the local kid in the neighbourhood. I used to go to people and say listen I know I’m young, take advantage of me while I’m young an innocent. I had a pretty good reputation, and I was getting work. I published a photograph in Cover Girl magazine when I was 18. I had taken photographs of a model, which she used to enter a contest with the magazine. When she won they called and told her they wanted me to re-shoot the photo in color for the cover.
I’ve been blessed with great teachers and mentors my whole life. I had incredible professors during my college years at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. When I left school I became Jay Maisel’s assistant and after a year I became his associate, which was when I started shooting my own jobs. Jay was my mentor, and of the many lessons he taught me the most important was just how hard you have to work to make it in this business. I was Jay’s associate for 2 years, and with Jay’s blessing ventured out on my own. I do feel that the more you practice the luckier you get. I feel there is a direct relationship in any type of mastery with how much time you put into something. I have good fortune to be as excited today as I was when I was 13. That’s what this picture is about, in a way I continue to challenge the idea of what a photograph can be. I’m always interested in doing something different and I think sometimes people are sort of surprised when they think they have me pigeon holed and then I do something completely different. I am interested in pursuing all aspects of the art.
F STOP: Your work seems to oscillate between produced images for big commercial clients and a more intimate photojournalistic style. Tell me about that dichotomy.
Wilkes: I take pictures and then I make pictures. I love doing both; I love discovering something and photographing it. On the other hand as I have grown as a professional, I have developed the craft and the professionalism of learning how to produce a job. I think the basis of even being able to execute jobs like that comes down to abilities to work with people and create an environment where people feel comfortable and relaxed
F STOP: Where do you think your interest in these two modes of photography stem from?
Wilkes: My core philosophy about photography came from journalism. I was a street photographer; I used to go out for hours at a time, that ‘s where I really cut my chops. Street shooting is like being a hunter; you can see how a moment builds. You can sense it happening. I think when you develop your eye through the study of gesture, movement and human nature; the ability to create those moments eventually translates to you as a director. When I work on big commercial jobs, I direct the movement and the moment, so to speak. But if you don’t understand the movement and the nature of human gestures then my pictures don’t have that energy or sense of realism. I think it all starts at being a real student of photojournalism.
F STOP: Where did the interest in doing advertising develop?
Wilkes: It just became a challenge for me. People used to look at my work early on and they couldn’t even realize I was lighting. That was kind of interesting, there was a perception that I had incredible luck all the time. When in reality I had discovered how to light and produce images that look found. But then rather than go away from that idea, I felt like I could even do something more. As my career began to grow I began doing even bigger production photographs for major campaigns. I remember doing the launch campaign for a new Kodak film called Ektar, I had to photograph a guy propelling down the top of the totem pole in Monument Valley. It was an enormous production. We had these professional stunt guys dropped via helicopter on top of this 600 ft high stone monolith, there was only one place in the United States that makes a single piece of rope 600 feet long that a climber could repel with. It happened to be in New York City. There were amazing challenges, yet we pulled it off. Each project creates its own set of challenges. I think that’s what I love, the challenges. We do so much of the legwork prior to shooting; the easiest part for me is the actual shooting. Once we have done all our homework, I am just living in the moment when I get on set.
F STOP: Your executive producer is your wife Bette. Did that work relationship develop from a romantic relationship?
Wilkes: Yeah, absolutely. She was a hard driven and well-liked established businesswoman when I first met her. I was really impressed, we were the same age, she asked me what I did and I was like, “Oh, I’m this struggling photographer,” as I was assisting and doing what I could do. She was intrigued by what I did and she said she never saw pictures like my pictures. She always believed we would be successful, and told me I was one of the most ambitious people she’d ever met. When you’re in it, you don’t feel that way about yourself. We shared a one-room apartment for three years and just saved everything we could. Whatever we made we invested back into the business.
F STOP: Do you know any other photographers with wives or husbands as their executive producers?
Wilkes: People either think it is great or that we are nuts. But it works for us. We’ve been married for 26 years, so I think it’s worked pretty well.
F STOP: What do you think has been the one thing that has really formed your success?
Wilkes: My dad is a self made man, he made fragrances. He always used to tell me that he would sell a guy on the street two gallons of fragrances when he first started his business. As the business grew he continued to sell that guy those two gallons. He never forgot the people who helped get him started in business. I always respected that and I guess for me I think if there is one key, it is to treat every job like my first job. I never bank on what I’ve done.
F STOP: Tell us about your fine art work. There seems to be a common line of capturing the architectural ascetics of a place and the character of that place. Do you agree?
Wilkes: I feel like my work is sort of a social documentary approach to fine art. I mean that’s what I am drawn to. I realized when I created the Ellis Island work I could take pictures that were not only beautiful to look at, but could actually inspire people to change or get involved in something.
F STOP: And in contrast to places that are forgotten you have the new factories in China. Tell me about that series.
Wilkes: Well China was a very interesting project for me because it was a way for me to look back and look forward at the same time. I had the good fortune in 1978 to go to China, two years after the Cultural Revolution had ended. It was a very important moment for me as a photographer. I was hyper-focused on the idea that I was a photographer and I was really looking to create a body of work that would separate me from a host of other photographers and get a career going. So that series of pictures even to this day is as powerful for me as it ever was. When I went back 27 years later, whole cities had changed, they weren’t even recognizable. I felt the need to photograph what I was seeing. I had a unique perspective on what China was versus what China has become. In the factories, beside the epic scale I was also drawn to humanizing the factory worker.
F STOP: How did you get access?
Wilkes: We wrote letters to a lot of these factories and showed them my work. I think they were very cautious because everybody is worried about being misrepresented. When I shared with them that I was doing pictures that were showing the epic quality of what Chinese factories are, what China has become, many of them acquiesced. I try to keep my China work very open. I don’t want to dictate how you should feel about my pictures. I am just showing it the way I see it, I want to allow the viewer to bring his or her own interpretation to the work.
To see more of Stephen Wilkes’ work visit his website.
Interview by Zack Seckler
Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
This piece was originally published 9/1/09 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.