Stephen Wilkes (https://stephenwilkes.com) 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. 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 a 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 extended to include America’s National Parks in celebration of their centennial anniversary and Bird Migration for the 2018 Year of the Bird. Most recently a new grant was extended for Canadian Iconic Species and Habitats at Risk in collaboration with The Royal Canadian Geographic Society. Day to Night : In the Field with Stephen Wilkes was exhibited at The National Geographic Museum in 2018. Day to Night was published by TASCHEN as a monograph in 2019. 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. Wilkes directorial debut, the documentary film, Jay Myself, world premiered at DOCNYC in November 2018. The film is an in depth look into the world of photographer Jay Maisel and his move out of his 35,000 sq. foot building at 190 Bowery. Oscilloscope Laboratories has acquired the North American rights and the film opened at Film Forum in New York in July, 2019.
Scheduled to Teach
LACP Interviews Stephen Wilkes
LACP asks Stephen Wilkes ten questions about his background, career in and beliefs about photography.
Los Angeles Center of Photography: What kind of photographer are you?
Stephen Wilkes : I consider myself a generalist, I work in a multitude of areas. The majority of my work is now focused on my fine art, exploring core issues, endangered species and habitats. I continue to also work as a documentary photographer and do commercial projects periodically.
LACP: How long have you been shooting?
SW: I started at age 12… 50 years ago.
LACP: Where did you get your training?
SW: I’ve been blessed to have several mentors in my life. The photographer Bob Adelman, and of course Jay MaiseI to name a few. I learned to be a wedding photographer when I was 13, and had my own business by the time, I was 16. Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and special events. I would sell myself door to door in my local neighborhood, my sales line was,” Take advantage of me, while I’m young and innocent”! I went to College at The Newhouse School of Public Communications, Dual majoring, studying Communications & Business Marketing, I studied photo journalism and worked on mastering my craft in college, simultaneously I learned about business, specifically how to market myself.
LACP: When did you know you wanted to devote your life to photography?
SW: The first time I took pictures through a microscope when I was 12 years old. I was instantly hooked. I’ve always been fascinated by science and the act of discovery.
LACP: Did you ever come close to giving up?
SW: I never…ever thought of giving up, and there were many people in the early days of this journey who didn’t believe in my dream of doing this as a career. I just loved the act of photographing so much, I never wanted to do anything else.
LACP: Have you sacrificed anything by being a photographer?
SW: I’ve tried to have a balanced life, I’ve been married to the same amazing woman for 37 years, my wife & business partner Bette. We have 2 grown children, Sam & Jennie, who we are incredibly proud of. Both of our children have beautiful hearts and are so creative, and highly accomplished in their own careers. I feel I was there for most things, however when you travel for a living like I do, there are certain moments with your family that you miss, and that stays with you. Those would be my only regrets.
LACP: What have you gained by being a photographer?
SW: A truly blessed life, full of curiosity, creativity, passion and reward. I get to learn something new every day. I consider myself so lucky to have found my life’s passion at such a young age.
LACP: What classes do you teach at LACP?
SW: I haven’t had the pleasure of teaching at LACP but am excited for this upcoming workshop on October 2nd.
LACP: What do you love most about teaching?
SW: I love to see a student get inspired, be passionate about what they are photographing, take risks, and grow while finding their own voice. To watch them recognize the greatest lesson of all, hard work, and inspiration only comes from doing the work.
LACP: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about making a career in photography?
SW: While there’s always room for someone new & talented, this is a challenging time to make a living as a photographer. As my mentor Jay Maisel would say to me… “Kid, you’ve got to eat, sleep and drink photography every day of your life. The secret is hard work, your talent means NOTHING… you have to literally out work everybody.” It’s a lesson I’ve shared with my own children.