Stephen Wilkes is a voyeur on an operatic scale. Although the first thing one sees in his epic photographs is a panorama that divides seamlessly between day and night, closer inspection will usually reveal a cityscape teeming with people engaged in the innumerable private dramas of the street. The nocturnal/diurnal split bestows an overall sense of cosmic symmetry, while the citizens far below (Wilkes shoots from a 50 to 60–foot high cherry picker) form a mosaic of human theater that is pleasingly anarchical. Wilkes engages in what he calls “compressed time” — 15 hours of shooting that are culled into a single synthetic moment. “It’s a complicated puzzle that unfolds in real time as I work,” says Wilkes. “It’s not just what I execute in post, it has to be shot a specific way to be able to execute the post side of the equation.”
The actions in Wilkes’s majestic pictures are true, but their points in real time are collapsed into one intricately calculated frame. The final images are therefore idealizations, Platonic constructs of familiar vistas that include the Eiffel Tower, Trafalgar Square, New York’s Coney Island and Union Square, and Shanghai’s Bund. Wilkes occasionally ventures into the sublime of the natural world, as with his radiant photograph of a Yosemite valley. In this, his subtext soars to an implied lament about the perfect creation that we are threatening as a species:
The moral consciousness of my work has been evolving. This series has informed me as I’ve tried to inform it. I’ve always had a documentary side; I’ve photographed Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, for instance. So although these are celebratory visuals, it’s becoming more important to impart something beyond that, so that people reflect on how we fit into the cosmos, and on our responsibilities for our actions — because time is running out.
Wilkes labors at the cutting edge of technical application and apparatus to create lucid, high-res, hyperreal images — which underscore the paradox that is his fictional stage. Capturing the life of the city has been the aim of photographers since the beginning of the medium. A cross between street photography and landscape photography, Wilkes’s photographs are unique in that they invite us to meditate on time as a natural cycle while celebrating the profusion of tiny public narratives that give a canonical city its visual and emotional texture. Since Wilkes also has an eye on the broader time-frame of history, he often seizes upon landmark events (a Presidential inauguration, a New Years Eve in Times Square), which his optimal vantages render instantly iconic. The contrast between the infinite minutiae in each shot and the unified single image makes unhurried viewing essential.
The genesis of the “Day To Night” series was an assignment from New York Magazine some years ago. After Wilkes had perfected his craft photographing Ellis Island over a five-year period, he was asked to shoot the High Line on New York’s Westside. He off-handedly suggested showing the site as it changed from day to night, not yet knowing how to execute it. In the course of working out a methodology he discovered the alchemy of compressed time. The seed of this interest came in 1995 when LIFE magazine asked him to shoot the set of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Inspired by the photo-collages of David Hockney, which assembled multiple-angled exposures into a Cubist eye view of a single scene, Wilkes shot Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio kissing amidst cast and crew, composed intelligibly from 50 shots. Years later, when Photoshop became available, he returned to the idea of “changing time in a photograph”: “This technology, Photoshop, is allowing photographers to change the way we look at and think about a still photograph.”
Stephen Wilkes, “Day To Night” series on view through December 31 at Peter Fetterman Gallery, Los Angeles.
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