“For two weeks after shooting the first group of pictures of Ellis, I was obsessed. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t erase the buildings from my mind. So I went back, many times, every chance I could. What began as a one-hour editorial assignment became a five-year passion.” -Stephen Wilkes

On Photography: Stephen Wilkes, 1957-present
Stephen Wilkes

Ellis Island: One-day assignment

Photographer Steven Wilkes went to Ellis Island in 1988 on a photographic assignment that was to last a single day. Over the course of five years, he went back time and again to document the abandoned medical wards. Ellis Island, home to the Statue of Liberty, was the landing point for over 12 million immigrants seeking political and religious freedom and to participate in the American dream (opening photo, entire top row.)

Wilkes’s photographs and videos of these almost forgotten buildings helped raise 6 million dollars to help restore the south side of Ellis Island. His book, “Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom” (2006) was named one of Time magazine’s “5 Best Photography Books of the Year.”

Day to Night ™ series

Another of Stephen Wilkes’s series is his trademarked Day to Night photographs where the events of a single day are presented in a single print. In an interview with MUSÉE, he talks about how he makes these stunning studies of time.

“Although, the word timelapse can be misleading. People hear that word and think I’m working with something automated. For example, they may think that my camera shoots every 30 seconds and then I choose from 3,000 images. That’s not it.” He continues to explain his process, “I actually sit and stare at a place anywhere from 12 to 36 hours. I hand cock a lens and anything that catches my eye, I photograph it. I’m essentially a street photographer from 50 feet in the air. I work in the most traditional of manners. Except I capture with electronic film, with digital” (opening photo, bottom row, 3re and 4th from left).

On Photography: Stephen Wilkes, 1957-present
Stonehenge, U.K. Day to Night™

Editing a Day to Night™

As he captures the components of each of his time montages he is searching for a moment. Wilkes says, “I’m visualizing time change. I look at these pictures and I decide where day begins and ends. I call that a time vector.” Wilkes is seeking the right times to include in his work. He says, “I’m capturing very specific moments as time changes. At the end of the day, I may choose as many as 2,200 images. Then I’ll edit for a month to find fifty moments. Those fifty moments get seamlessly blended into the master play photograph.”

Watch a CBS Sunday Morning segment with Stephen Wilkes on how he makes a Day to Night™ photograph, as reported by Martha Teichner.

Jay Myself

Steven Wilkes has started moving into filmmaking documented his mentor Jay Maisel’s move from his 35,000 square foot building known simply as “The Bank” where he had as his residence and studio for 48 years. The resulting documentary is an intimate view into the two New York City icons — The Bank and Jay Maisel.

Wilkes has strong beliefs in the value of apprenticeship for upcoming photographers. He explains, “Telling Jay’s story in the movie was a way to give back. Mentoring is a great gift. Jay is a great mentor. Many of the kids that I meet have been so pressured. The idea of apprenticeship is a dying thing because they need paying, full-time jobs to keep up with all their expenses. It’s a different mentality. I created this film in a way so you can see Jay the way I saw him and learn from him like I did. This is my opportunity to mentor so many people, in a way. The film is a life lesson way beyond just art.”

“Jay Myself” is available for rent or purchase on Vimeo.

COVID-19 essential workers

Currently, Wilkes has been making photographs of essential workers of the COVID-19 pandemic (opening photo, bottom row, first two images.) More essential worker photos are on Stephen Wilkes’s website.

Sources: TED, StatueofLiberty.org, MUSÉE, Stephen Wilkes

Read about more inspirational photographers in On Photography.