Stephen Wilkes has found a very personal way to capture an entire day in a single photo. His extraordinary panoramas are created by taking thousands of photographs at famous locations, and then digitally stitching the best ones together into images depicting each scene from dawn to dusk.
Time becomes fluid, as hundreds of different people and animals — and their stories — merge to create single frames encompassing them all.
“This is not a time-lapse,” said Wilkes in a phone interview from Iceland, where he has been photographing melting icebergs for the series.
“I like to describe it as being a street photographer from 50 feet in the air. I see very specific moments and shoot them as time changes.”
For this shot of the Eiffel Tower and Champs de Mars in Paris, taken in 2014, Wilkes battled the elements for 18 hours to take photos from a 40-foot lift truck. Scroll through to see more images from “Day to Night.” Credit: © 2019 Stephen Wilkes
“I try to create photographs that are like windows — that give you almost a visceral experience. I really want you to feel like you’re standing here with me, looking at this. I want you to see the way I see,” said Wilkes, who likes to stage the photographs during momentous occasions, such as the Kumbh Mela Festival in India, a mass pilgrimage during which Hindus bathe in a sacred river, or the Palio in Siena, a medieval horse race that sends the Tuscan city into a frenzy.
“I look at time very much like a grid. Einstein described time as a fabric, and I kind of see it that way. I decide where day begins and night ends and I call that a ‘time vector.’ Once I’ve decided in what direction time is changing, I capture all those moments — sometimes I can take photographs for as long as 36 hours.”
The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Credit: © 2019 Stephen Wilkes
Once work on location is finished, the digital editing begins. “I come back home and then, on average, it takes me about a month to choose the best 50 moments of each day. Then I create what’s called a master plate, which is just a seamless scene that doesn’t have a lot of activity in it, but gives the sense of time changing through it. That allows me to take those 50 moments and blend them into the master plate, based on time.”
In this sense, Wilkes’ photos can be interpreted as the complete opposite of smartphone photography, which allows users to create panoramas in a matter of seconds.
“It’s a deep, deep study of a single place, in a world where the act of looking has become an endangered human experience, because we’re so fixated on these devices that we’re all carrying every day, every minute, every second — somebody’s texting you, emailing you, calling you, whatever it is, it’s a constant distraction.
“For me, this is an antithesis of that experience. When people come and see my work in person, they spend time in the photograph, and get lost in the stories that are within them. That is the great joy I get from it.”
Wilkes photographed Stonehenge during a rare pagan wedding. Credit: © 2019 Stephen Wilkes
Inspiration for the series stretches back to 1996, when Wilkes was asked by Life magazine to produce a three-page gatefold photo on the set of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” But when he arrived on set, he found that it was square, making it tricky to capture a panoramic image.
Wilkes then took a cue from artist David Hockney, who had recently published a book of collages in which he pasted multiple photos of the same scene together by hand. Wilkes took 250 images of the set — which included actors Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio alongside other members of cast and crew — and joined them together to form a panoramic shot.
Stephen Wilkes on assignment for National Geographic at Bass Rock, Scotland, in 2017. Credit: © 2019 Stephen Wilkes
This paved the way for “Day to Night,” which has benefited from the subsequent arrival of powerful photo-editing software. But while Wilkes is aided by computers in post-production, he stresses that his on-location work is carried out the old-fashioned way.
“There is nothing automated about what I do, I work in the most traditional way,” he said. “Imagine hand-cocking the lens 2,000 times. That’s what I do,” he said.
“I stand and look for 24 to 36 hours. I just stop and look, and look, and look. It’s like meditation, almost.”
Top image: A field of tulips right before the harvest in Bergen, Netherlands.