Stephen Wilkes Takes Flight with National Geographic
This small blue marble that we live on is awash in ecosystems and visceral traditions we seldom see and even less frequently understand. Even as millions of migratory birds have flown tens of thousands of miles all over the planet each year, it is only recently that we’ve begun to unlock the mystery – as human communication becomes more immediate and our lived experience brings us closer together, we see the magnificence around us. These stories are older than the human species, timeless in a way we can scarcely imagine even in the prehistoric calcium in our bones. Stephen Wilkes pulls these journeys out of time in his latest feature story with National Geographic: The Epic Journeys of Migratory Birds.
The breathtaking story includes four new images from Stephen created through his Day to Night process that is a taxing but incredible method that stitches entire days and nights into single images. To capture the four images, Stephen chased five different birds over the globe: Northern Gannets in Scotland, Lesser Flamingos in Kenya, Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska, and Black-Browed Albatrosses and Southern Rockhopper Penguins in the Falkland Islands (who, Stephen reports, were surprisingly cooperative). Each stunning image is the result of an incredible process: Stephen remains at a fixed position with his camera for 26 to 36 hours, hitting the shutter almost by instinct, resulting in anywhere between 1,000 and 1,800 exposures that he sorts through expertly. Once this expansive amount of imagery is brought back to the studio, Stephen begins the process of bringing the exposures together to reveal the entire day in one single composition. He compresses time into one image, almost inverting the limits of photography, removing the boundaries of the medium.
In photographing this way, Stephen is able to reveal more than a stolen moment from one group of birds, and is, instead, able to provide us with a larger context to give us a taste of what it’s like to experience these creatures and their behavior in a deeper way. “The flamingos create extraordinary patterns and the sky becomes an undulating piece of fabric,” Stephen explains, a notion he’s able to deliver to us thanks to the sheer volume of work that goes into the photographs.
If you want to experience the images beyond the limits of your screen, they will be on view at The National Geographic Museum (1145 17th Street, N.W. Washington, D.C.) as a part of ‘Day to Night: In the Field with Stephen Wilkes.’ Also included in the show will be aerial imagery he captured as a part of the global exploration. The show opens Tuesday, February 13, and will be on view through April 22.
For more on Stephen Wilkes' innovative 'Day to Night' process, check out his interview with the BBC.