Three Dams and Other Far Stories
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena for CALAMITA/À
Since opening his studio in New York City in 1983, photographer Stephen Wilkes has built an unprecedented body of work and a reputation as one of America’s most iconic photographers, widely recognized for his fine art, editorial and commercial work.
His photographs are included in the collections of the George Eastman Museum, James A. Michener Art Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Dow Jones Collection, Griffin Museum of Photography, Jewish Museum of NY, Library of Congress, Snite Museum of Art, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Museum of the City of New York, 9/11 Memorial Museum and numerous private collections. His editorial work has appeared in, and on the covers of, leading publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Time, Fortune, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, and many others.
Wilkes’ early career interpretations of Mainland China, California’s Highway One, and impressionistic “Burned Objects” set the tone for a series of career-defining projects that catapulted him to the top of the photographic landscape.
In 1998, a one-day assignment to the south side of Ellis Island led to a 5-year photographic study of the island’s long abandoned medical wards where immigrants were detained before they could enter America. Through his photographs and video, Wilkes helped secure $6 million toward the restoration of the south side of the island. A monograph based on the work, Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom, was published in 2006 and was named one of TIME magazine’s 5 Best Photography Books of the Year. The work was also featured on NPR and CBS Sunday Morning.
In 2000, Epson America commissioned Wilkes to create a millennial portrait of the United States, “America In Detail,” a 52-day odyssey that was exhibited in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Day to Night, Wilkes’ most defining project, began in 2009. These epic cityscapes and landscapes, portrayed from a fixed camera angle for up to 30 hours capture fleeting moments of humanity as light passes in front of his lens over the course of full day. Blending these images into a single photograph takes months to complete. Day to Night has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning as well as dozens of other prominent media outlets and, with a grant from the National Geographic Society, was recently extended to include America’s National Parks in celebration of their centennial anniversary. The series will be published as a monograph in 2017.
Wilkes’ work documenting the ravages of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy has brought heightened awareness to the realities of global climate change. He was commissioned by the Annenberg Space for Photography to revisit New Orleans in 2013 after documenting Hurricane Katrina for the World Monuments Fund. And, his images were exhibited with his photographs on Hurricane Sandy in the 2014 Sink or Swim, Designing for a Sea of Change exhibition.
Despite his intense dedication to personal projects, Wilkes continues to shoot advertising campaigns for the world’s leading agencies and corporations, including: OppenheimerFunds, SAP, IBM, The New Yorker, Johnson & Johnson, DHL, American Express, Nike, Sony, Verizon, IBM, AT&T, Rolex, Honda, McCann Worldwide, Ogilvy & Mather, and McGarry Bowen. Wilkes is currently working on a documentary film about legendary photographer Jay Maisel’s historic Bank Building at 190 Bowery. And, in 2016, his photograph Day to Night, Wrigley Field, will be included in Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843- Present, an exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum curated by Gail Buckland.
Wilkes’ extensive awards and honors include the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award for Magazine Photography, Photographer of the Year from Adweek Magazine, Fine Art Photographer of the Year 2004 Lucie Award, TIME Magazine Top 10 Photographs of 2012, Sony World Photography Professional Award 2012 and Prix Pictet, Consumption 2014. His board affiliations include the Advisory Board of the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications; Save Ellis Island Board of Directors, on which he served for 5 years; and the Goldring Arts Journalism Board.
Wilkes was born in 1957 in New York. He received his BS in photography from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a minor in business management from the Whitman School of Management in 1980. Wilkes, who lives and maintains his studio in Westport, CT, is represented by Peter Fetterman Gallery, Los Angeles; Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York; Monroe Gallery of Photography, Santa Fe; and Artitled Contemporary, The Netherlands.
CALAMITA/À: You started out studying science and communications. What made you shift to photography? In which ways do you think these studies influenced your photography? How did you discover photography as your medium for expression?
Stephen Wilkes: My work has always been about discovery—my first photographs were actually taken through a microscope. I became hooked instantly, as the medium of photography spoke to the core of my foundation: a passion to discover.
I was always drawn to archaeology when I was a kid, and have often thought that I probably would’ve become an archaeologist if I wasn’t a photographer. In reality, as I look at my work now, and reflect on those early beginnings, science has always played an important part in my ability to use technology as a way of looking at the world. My current work, “Day and Night” is an expression of that.
When digital photography came about it was a very exciting moment for me personally. I saw this new technology as an extraordinary tool, one in which I could begin to explore the idea of pushing the boundaries of photography outward, and that’s what I’ve really been trying to do.
A/À: What attracted you towards industrial landscape, urban spaces in architecture, and in which way does your work concern with the borderlands and the old edges of historical cities?
SW: My documentary work really emanated from my Ellis Island project in 1998. Prior to that I had never explored architectural or documentary photography. I began working seriously with a large-format camera during that project. The slowness and the way you view the world when you work with that camera is very different than when you work with a 35 mm. It’s a slow, methodical, thoughtful and almost Zen like process; one which I really started to enjoy.
As I began to explore the power of being able to set up this sacred frame, so to speak, and being patient, waiting for things to happen within that frame, that’s where my journey began to capture even wider vistas.
A/À: Could you tell us something more about the creation of your project, China, Old and New; how the project started, focusing on both rural and industrial settings, emerging a radical transformation of the nation? Change of an era; how much importance you attach to the economic, political, and social aspects of what you exhibit?
SW: In 1978, I was invited on a historic trip to China with my college, Syracuse University. We were, I believe, one of the first universities to go to China. It was two years after Mao had died, and two years after the culture revolution had ended, so it was a very unique moment in history, one that created a lasting impression on me. It was a once in a lifetime experience. Few in the West had really seen what China looked like at that point in time. It was a world where time stood still, and suddenly I had access to it, which was really magical.
I returned from the trip with a set of pictures and had the opportunity to show them to my mentor, Jay Maisel, whom I had studied with for a summer. He looked at the work and said, “You really – you can’t be an assistant anymore. You need to shoot on your own. You’re too good.” I said, “what do you mean, I’m too good? I can’t afford to make a living.” That led me to become Jay’s associate, which was another major moment in my career, and catalyzed my learning the business and craft of photography.
When I look back on that work, my first experience traveling to China, I saw a country at a significant point in history. If you were military, you dressed in green. If you were civilian, you dressed in blue. The only billboards were propaganda art. I returned to China 27 years after that initial trip thinking that maybe there would be remnants or traces of the China I had witnessed on my first visit. However, when I got there, I was overwhelmed at how different it was. I was not prepared for the speed of change which had occurred between visits. I began exploring and referencing my memory of China versus what China has become. I’m fascinated by the speed of change, and the scale in which they do everything.
A/À: Referring to your project, “China, Three Gorges Dam,” how can we find a link between China, the area where the work was done and its meaning? What led you to photograph China, and are you commenting on contemporary culture and society with the river?
SW: I was drawn to Three Gorges Dam because of its incredible scale. I wanted to see what one of these mega-projects looked like. When I went there, it certainly delivered on everything I ever could’ve imagined it to be. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, man-made or natural. I was immediately captivated by not only it’s overwhelming physical presence, but by the way the surrounding areas and communities had adapted to it.
A lot of my work began to focus in on some of the subtle details. Often when you see something this scale its difficult to see the edges, or what exists on the periphery. When I first saw Three Gorges dam, I became mesmerized, by the sheer scale and magnitude of this man-made object. As my view expanded, I slowly started to see how life was adapting at the edges.
Having been to China in 1978, and then returning 27 years later, I began to explore my memory of what China was before vs what China is now. Working to create compositions where I could showcase both, the old and new. That’s really what this work is about; the China of my memory, and the China that I am witnessing today.
A/À: The territorial morphology, the infrastructure, the new hierarchical relationship between the city and the countryside, the pollution, the climate changes have contributed to change our perception of the world, and of course their presentation of contemporary landscape photography. To what extent does your work represent and reflect the present, and are you involved and interested in contemporary architecture? Who are the architects that most excite you today?
SW: Seeing China in ’78, there were maybe ten automobiles within an entire city. Everyone rode bicycles. The only cars that were there were 1940s Russian diplomat cars that government officials drove. Now if you look closely today, you’ll see that the Chinese drive their automobiles in the same way they ride bicycles; nobody speeds and they rarely signal. They tend to float in between lanes very much like you do when you ride a bicycle.
During my second visit I also realized that China went from a predominantly agricultural society in 1978 to becoming the world’s manufacturer, and they have now evolved further; no longer wanting to just be the factory for the world but to drive technology forward. The next stage is developing their own products, inventing, and steering technology in a very unique way.
Historically the ancient Chinese were the predominant culture in almost every form of art as well as developing everything from techniques in manufacturing metals to pottery. This innovation slowed during the 1900’s but we are now seeing a resurgence of that historic ingenuity.
In the 27-year gap between my visits, change occurred at such a rapid speed – almost a kind of compression of time – resulting in huge leaps in industrial development. This makes us ask, “what are the side effects of that speed?”. That’s where the pollution issue arises in China, specifically the air quality. Suddenly going from most people riding bicycles to having millions of cars on the roads has made a huge difference. It’s all happened so quickly that it essentially is an exponential effect on an environmental level, unlike anything we’ve really ever seen.
My work, has focused on the changes I’ve noticed between trips, reflecting on the core issues of the environment, development and how people interact with their changing environment. Since my work began in China in ‘78, the country has experienced exponential growth. China can change and adapt its infrastructure instantaneously. In fact, we can already see a movement and adaptation architecturally to address some of these environmental issues that China is faced with.
I have documented an evolution in architecture based on these concerns – from the area around Three Gorges Dam, rural areas, to bustling factories, and the Birds Nest built for the ’08 Olympics. One building, the Shanghai Tower, was designed with sustainability and energy efficiencies in mind and even includes atriums so that people don’t have to go outside to experience greenery. This speaks to an awareness of the population’s impact on the environment and the need for practical solutions to environmental concerns.
I’ve always been drawn to the extraordinary scale in which the Chinese build. Even on a historical level, for example, The Great Wall, or more contemporarily the Birds Nest for the ’08 Olympics. The Chinese have always pushed boundaries in design, engineering and scale when creating structures. They have gone out of their way to work with the world’s greatest architects – recognizing the importance and power of architecture in the context of a city. In terms of architects who’s work in China I particularly admire, I would note: Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Sir Norman Foster and Kohn Pedersen Fox.
One of the things they do – of course, they’re very aggressive in the modern challenges in expanding their search globally for other resources to support growth across industries. The Chinese recognize the world has a limited amount of resources whether or not they’re going to adapt fast enough, and by the way, whether or not the world adapts fast enough. This is a global problem; it’s not just in China.
My hope is that through contemporary landscape photography, one can show people a deeper understanding of the world as it exists. Through the power of beauty, one can connect on an emotional level to the viewer, opening a door into their consciousness.
A/À: There are many relevant photography works concerning energy (dams, watersheds, nuclear or hydroelectric centrals…) like the ones by Mitch Epstein, Jurgen Nefzger, Edward Burtynsky. What are your favorites?
SW: I admire all those projects. In particular I really enjoyed Mitch Epstein’s work on power. I think it’s important that documentary photographers keep these issues front and center. The beauty of photography is that everybody has a different point of view and there are multiple ways to tell a single story. When I look at my work I think the most important thing is that I try to tell a story through beauty. There’s a power in beauty that I look for. I don’t just want to make a picture that makes people think; I want them to be drawn into my picture because there’s an intrinsic beauty about what I’m photographing. It is through beauty that I tell stories which I hope, perhaps, will have a better chance of captivating the viewer.
A/À: On October 9, 1963, at 10:39 p.m., 260 million cubic meters of rock broke off the top of Monte Toc on the border between Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia. It fell onto the reservoir of the Vajont Dam producing an enormous wave of at least 50 million cubic meters of water. The Dam, completed in 1959 and one of the biggest in the world at the time, did not suffer any serious damage. However, flooding destroyed several villages in the valley and killed almost 2,000 people.
A third of the population of Longarone, the largest village downstream of the dam, perished. The CALAMITA/À Project is a tool for investigating a territory which has been radically transformed by this event. The catastrophe marks an instantaneous and irreversible alteration in the landscape. What do you know about this catastrophe?
SW: I must admit, unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with this incredible story. It’s important on a historical level but also one to which humanity can look to heed the warnings. We continue to build these gigantic projects and keep changing the surface of the Earth, essentially imposing our will on the land. There is a point – and I think we’re rapidly reaching it — where our invasiveness as a species is going to tip the scale; overwhelming the natural world forever, changing the way our climate and living organisms interact.
It is through lessons like what happened in the Vajont area – that we begin to ask as a species “Are we changing the way the Earth lives and breathes and exists?” In a sense, humanity is leaving a scar on the planet in the same way as the great asteroids. We know from fossil records what that did; the Earth became black, became cold, and most living things died. Gradually the Earth recovered and started to flourish again.
I’ve always felt that the Earth will outlive us; we just won’t be around to see it. If we want to live in harmony, we’ve got to recognize moments like that in history and take them as great warnings as to what can continue to happen.
A/À: What is your current project about, and what are your plans for the near future?
SW: My current project is called “Day to Night” where I document a single place for an entire day; on average, anywhere from 12 to 26 hours in which I photograph nonstop. It’s not a time lapse; it’s me capturing very specific moments throughout the day and into the night. Of the best moments from that entire day, I pick 50 and they all get seamlessly layered together into one image. It takes about a month of editing, four months of post-processing total. The concept is to change time in a photograph; I’m compressing an entire day into one image.
What’s been exciting is that it’s really changing the way people look and think about a still photograph. Photography has always been about documenting a single moment, but it doesn’t have to be just that anymore. It can be about a multitude of moments. Time, in a way, is evasive, obscure, and is almost an unapproachable aspect of our lives – we always think, “Where did the time go? How’d the kids grow up? When did my hair turn gray?” All those things, we don’t see them as they happen instead we sense time. In Day to Night we can see time in a new way.
In a strange way, I’m putting a face on time in these photographs. One of my latest pieces, which I’m very excited about, is an image of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. I’m so excited about this particular image because, as a documentary photographer, it speaks about my concern on the issue of climate change. There was a five-week drought during the peak migration in Tanzania and I happened to be there at that very time. I photographed for 26 hours from a crocodile blind which was 18 feet up in the air. I watched all these different animals come and drink out of a single watering hole. They didn’t even grunt at each other as if they’d put all their behavioral traits aside and recognized that the single resource they all had to share was this thing called water. It was an amazing lesson, a lesson that I hope humanity learns soon.