Stephen Wilkes Explores New York as an Emergent Life Form in ‘New York: Day to Night’


When we first saw the photographs making up Stephen Wilkes’ “New York: Day to Night” series, we gasped. We have long loved Magritte’s “Empire of Light” painting, which plays with simultaneous experiences of darkness and light (you know, the one with the blue, day-like sky, the dark house, and the glowing lamppost?). And Wilkes’ new offerings do that, but on the backdrop of New York, with so much detail and energy…not to mention, they’re photos. Truly, they are so cool. We spoke with him recently to find out how he did it, and what inspired him.

How did you come up with the idea for the series?
The inception of the idea came about 15 years ago, when Life magazine was still in existence and I’d been commissioned to go to Mexico City to do a four-panel gatefold of all the people involved in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. I ended up discovering that the main set where the movie was filmed was a square, so I couldn’t do a gatefold unless I created another technique. At the time David Hockney was doing his montage technique, and I thought, I’d open the square and shoot it that way. I shot Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, and on the side of the set there was a mirror in which you could see their reflection. In the center in the photo they were embracing, and in the mirror they were kissing. That was the only difference. That’s when the idea of changing time in a photograph became intriguing to me. Fifteen years later, I can take a photo and literally change time in it — that’s become a reality.

More recently, I was commissioned to do a photo of the Highline for New York magazine, and in a conversation with Jody Quon, I said, I’ve got this crazy idea — the Highline is an amazing place, you’re intimate with New York but also distanced enough to take in the breadth of the city. I wanted to photograph it and show that. I had this cherry picker, and that’s how it sort of evolved, looking from south to north, and thinking, what if it goes from day to night?

That was the first one I did, and that led to another image, also for New York, of Washington Square Park. That was a vertical day to night. After that I realized this was a unique thing, and I felt compelled to do more. I started exploring New York for these views.

How do you identify the views you want to photograph?
I’m looking for these iconic views of New York, views we all sort of think about, areas we can relate to. But I’m trying to look at them in a way that people have never really seen them. It’s like a voyeur, it’s intimate, but there’s also this breadth going on. I’m trying to work on a scale in which you can read body language and gesture. What are the people in the photograph all doing? It dawned on me, I’m studying New York as an emergent life form, and the way you can see the city flow, it’s a form of emergent behavior. You realize that the pedestrians are communicating, the cabs, all these elements are coming together and creating a complex life form. In a way that’s how the city works. And, in a strange way, photographically, it’s almost an emergent form, the concept of a single photo is being changed in this way.

Do you have a favorite photo in the collection?
I’m finishing one that’s quickly becoming my favorite. It’s Coney Island on a Saturday afternoon. The perspective is from floating above the boardwalk. The amusement park is night, the beach is day, and it’s full of activity. The level of detail — I’m working with a large-format camera, and it’s exciting that people can see the detail online, but in person, you can see it 60 inches big, and the photos look like windows, and you can actually see into people’s windows…

Tell us about the process of taking the photos.
We’ve been working with the city to get perspective that people haven’t been able to see before. We’ll be in the center of Park Avenue, 100 feet in the air. When I’m in the cherry picker, my eye is scanning every square inch of what the photo is. There is this sense of awe, when you make these discoveries: There’s a person in that window, and she’s having dinner, there’s a person on the rooftop…

In the Park Avenue shot, we were taking pictures and this truck pulled onto the right-hand side of the street. It was a black truck with a logo that said “Day and Night,” and you can see that in my photo! There have been all kinds of serendipity moments, and that’s what New York is about.

Very much so…
I get to the location and I have no control of who’s in or out of my photo, and all the hustle and bustle and documentary aspect is what it is….it’s like a fusion of documentary street photography and at the same time, the epic study of the city and architecture and scope of New York. It’s really been exciting to meld those two things together.

What’s your goal for the completion of the series?
I plan on doing a book with this work, so the finished amount is still up in the air. I have another opening in the spring in Santa Fe, and we’ll probably have at that point 15 images. It just keeps evolving. I’m shooting very specific seasons, like Rockefeller Center with the Christmas tree. Combining seasons is something in the back of my mind, showing how unique New York is through the seasons and how different it feels.

It’s the most complex thing I’ve ever done photographically. I think when people look at the medium of photography today, there’s a sense of everything’s going to video, but I look at still photos, and I think there’s lots of room to push that medium. The bottom line is, do you discover something new every time you look at it? I shoot for 15 hours at a time and people ask, “How do you possibly do that?” I say, New York is such a wondrous place, and to sit above it like that…people spend afternoons sipping coffee and people watching…you can just imagine my views!

Wilkes’ show runs from September 8 to October 29 at ClampArt. He’ll also show at Santa Fe’s Monroe Gallery in the spring of 2012.