Via The Ottawa Citizen
Peter Simpson - The Big Beat
Published on: November 16, 2015
Still photography was dead, or so they said. Ubiquitous video would make still photography obsolete, anachronistic, unnecessary.
The photographer Stephen Wilkes knows otherwise.
“To me, this is the most exciting moment in the history of photography. The potential to explore things that we’ve never done in a still photograph are so great,” says Wilkes, by phone from his studio in Westport, Connecticut. “I’ve been very conscious of using new technologies in the medium to push the medium outward.”
His “Day to Night” images, which compress multiple frames of the same scene taken from dawn to dusk — but which are not time-lapse photography — demonstrate his drive to show familiar as anew.
To me, what Day to Night is, it’s changing the way you look at a still photograph,” says Wilkes, who will be at the National Gallery Nov. 19 for the U.S. embassy’s art-lecture series, Contemporary Conversations.
I chat with Wilkes for 51 minutes and, I confess, I’m not entirely clear on how he made the Day for Night photographs, most famously his image of Barack Obama’s first inauguration as president of the United States.
Presidential Inauguration, Day to Night, 2013, by Stephen Wilkes
The inaugural photograph appears to be a single image of more than 800,000 people crowded onto the Mall leading to the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Far in the distance, the president stands with his hand raised, swearing fealty to the constitution.
Curiously, an orange dawn breaks on the right side of the frame, while dark night creeps on the left. The people on the right side may be only a few hundred feet from the people on the left, but they are also separated by 10 hours.
Wilkes was amid the vast crowd and 50 feet in the air on a scissor lift, and he shot as many as 2,500 frames from sun up to sundown on “a bloody cold day,” the entire time a slave to precision.
“If I shift my weight every time I take a picture, if my feet are not in the exact same position, then my horizon line changes,” he says, and describes how he had to put down tape marks for his feet, and for those of his assistant. It must have looked like a crime scene up there.
He then whittled the hundreds of frames down to 50, and made them into a sort of collage, “almost like a time capsule, on this day, in this place. . . . It’s like a giant puzzle I do in my head as I work.”
The only obvious hint that it’s a composite image, other than the weird dichotomy of light and dark, are the differing views of the president shown on huge video screens at the side of the Mall.
“Day to Night is almost a synthesis of all the things that I love about the medium of photography. . . In a way I’m putting a face on time,” Wilkes says, and then talks of how we remember, together, a time that’s passed. “I’m very interested in the idea of what our collective memory is, as a species.”
I’ve already gone well over my allotted time for our interview — usually 20 minutes or so — but Wilkes, after two decades of work, remains infectiously enthusiastic.
He describes at length his experiences while photographing abandoned, decaying structures at Ellis Island in New York harbour, once the arrival point for millions of immigrants to the U.S., and at the Bethlehem Steel plant.
“There was a palpable sense of humanity in these historic places that, in a way, I never really understood or realized you could really capture,” he says. “I think the greatest rewards have been when people see these multiple bodies of work that I’ve done and they say to me, ‘I can feel my ancestors in your pictures. I can feel the people in your photographs.’”
He talks passionately of photographing the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on New Orleans, and of shooting nudes for the first time, in a remarkable series, after 9/11. “Our lives were turned upside down. I felt like I wanted to go back and think about what the creation was like.”
He recounts going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, at age 14, and being deeply influenced by a Bruegel the Elder painting, the Harvesters. “I remember walking up to it and looking closely at these men in the field, and it was almost as if I could feel the sweat on their brow.”
Wilkes had been taking photographs for two years at that point, and says “nothing ever made me feel like that. I loved the idea of capturing a moment on film.”
Decades later, his belief in photography as an catalyst for change is undiminished.
“I find that by creating images that have an inherent beauty, people will look at them for just a second, and if I get you for just a second, then I think I can make you think a little deeper about what I’m showing you.” And, emphatically, “The power of the single image is the way.”
As for the photography-is-dead crowd, let them be damned.
When & where: 6 p.m., Nov. 19 at the National Gallery. Tickets, free.