Stephen Wilkes Makes Time Timeless with National Geographic
National Geographic Magazine isn’t just a content creator of some of the most beautiful photography on the planet or the most illuminating stories about how humans interact with the world, it’s a cultural zeitgeist that has captured life on this planet. As an observer of the human condition no other publication has harnessed history and experience to talk about who we are like National Geographic, and Stephen Wilkes has been a student of this visual history since he was a kid. “Since I was 12 I’ve been taking pictures. I’ve been a photographer all my life,” Stephen explains. “And National Geographic has always been the apex of the world of photojournalism and magazine photography.” This month, Stephen’s work graces the cover of the magazine launching a yearlong study on America’s National Parks. National Geographic asked Stephen to help them launch this project because of his distinct ability to condense time and place into a single composition through his ongoing study “Day to Night.”
In this process, Stephen roots himself into a space and observes at least a full day from one location from 15 to 24 hours, photographing thousands of frames from that point of view. After he captures all that life, then Stephen and his team seamlessly blend the best moments together to create one final photograph based on the progression of time. It’s a totally different way of understanding how time and photography interact, and changes like this are not always quickly understood. But National Geographic understood exactly what Stephen was doing. “When you push boundaries in any medium or field, there’s a sort of resistance, even if you look at the history of photography,” explains Stephen. “National Geographic saw what I was doing, trying to change the way we look at the world in a way by using technology and photography in a different way. It’s very exciting that somebody at that level got behind it. When they chose my work as a cover story to launch what will be a year long project on the National Parks it was very, very, very gratifying, very exciting for me personally.” Through the pages of this issue you can see Stephen’s take on the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and even West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C.
The plunge into working with a new visual technology is a rich part of the historical heritage of looking at our national parks. More than a hundred years ago, at the foundation of the national parks system, the earliest innovators of photography were pushing their own boundaries to make communication possible. “If you look at the history of the national parks with Eadweard Muybridge to Carleton Watkins, some of the greatest masters of the time, they were embracing state of the art technology at the time to showcase the parks,” explains Stephen. “And my idea was to pay homage to the work of those guys. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to celebrate the 100th anniversary to create a body of work and show the parks in a way that no one had ever seen before based on this new way of seeing? So that’s how it evolved.”
These parks are a huge part of our American heritage, places that we, as a people, have decided are of crucial importance to understanding our country and the land that has shaped our past and our future. But the ability of a single human being to take in any experience of these places is limited. Stephen’s work makes it possible to understand them in a totally different way. “When you’re in the park physically, you stand there and you take in these places. So much of your experience is based on the time of day that you’re there,” says Stephen about being at The Grand Canyon. “No matter what time of day it was, there was a unique thing happening in terms of light, in terms of shadow, in terms of clouds, in terms of color, that you really can’t perceive unless you are there. You can’t take that in unless you are physically there seeing it or staying all day long and watching it.” Stephen’s photographs take those massive stretches of time and presents them to us in one image that we can tease apart, devouring each change, each moment, from one position and gain a deeper understanding of the space. “Now everyone gets to see the changes and how dramatic they are from day into night. When you put that together it just has a profound effect on you, on an emotional level,” Stephen says.
Stephen goes through all this work not just to create beautiful images; it’s to speak to his audience. Millions of people have been to these parks, if only for a few minutes or hours out of a day. By bringing the entire day into each image, there’s something in every photograph that they will recognize and that’s something he knows they’ll appreciate. “There’s an element that viewers will connect to in my pictures, a time period they will connect to,” says Stephen. “But few have ever been able to see these places through all those stages, and that’s where the magic comes in.”