Photographic Time Traveler: Stephen Wilkes on His Career and Its Evolution

A room in the medical wards of Ellis Island.

Stephen Wilkes boasts an illustrious career defined by his superb artistic eye. Speaking at a Spotlight event at Apple’s flagship New York City location, the photographer explains his work and its evolution over time.

Wilkes earned his degree in photography from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School and opened his studio in 1983. His career spans artistic studies and inspired commercial work in equal measure.

Early in his career, he visited mainland China. In 1998, he began a project on Ellis Island’s abandoned medical wards. Wilkes has been a National Geographic Explorer, received grant funding from the National Graphic Society. His work has been published in Fortune, New York Times Magazine, Time, and Vanity Fair, and his he’s worked with brands including Netflix, Apple, Nike, and of course, Apple.

In short, Wilkes is a top photographer in the field with the resume to back it up.

A scene of Coney Island moves from night to morning from left to right.

A room in the medical wards of Ellis Island.

A Photographer’s Digital Evolution

Throughout the years, Wilkes remained a longtime film holdout, sticking to the medium well after many already made the move to digital. As he discusses his body of work, the audience is taken on a ride through time. But slide after slide and project after project, Wilkes says to the crowd, “And this was taken on film as well.”

Ever the diligent photographer, Wilkes says he wasn’t convinced to truly embrace digital until the cameras became more powerful, more specifically when it could successful capture images at night.

A landscape moves from night to day from the top to bottom of the image.

Times Square shown from night to day as the image moves from left to right

“That’s a leap in photography really, because I think if you’ve ever even film, we’d go into night, it was always like, okay, the moon’s going to be overexposed or everything else is going to be black. There was no middle ground in it,” Wilkes explains.

“​​The dynamic range of digital, when I started seeing that, that’s where it was the game changer, that’s when I realized that this thing is the ultimate tool, because it could give us things that really come close to the way you see the world, and in many instances, see more than you can see with your eye.”

Now, Wilkes says still breaks out the film, but only if he has a specific reason to do so.

Trees and snow appear atop each other in a double exposure image.

An abandoned room in Ellis Island's medical wards.

Trees shown overlapping in double exposure.

The Weight of History

Time is reflected as a central theme in Wilkes’ work. While studying at Syracuse University, Wilkes traveled to China where he completed his first body of work, something he says defined who he was as a photographer.

“I went back 37 years later and documented my memory of China versus what it was when I was a college student,” he says.

In one of his final images from the return voyage, Wilkes was inspired to do a spur of the moment portrait of a young boy walking by an old Bauhaus factory.

“It was just one of the most extraordinary moments for me, probably my favorite photograph from China because in this one moment I feel like the weight of history comes through him,” the photographer tells the crowd.

Trees overlap in double exposure.

A landscape image of a volcano moves from day to night in the image from left to right.

When photographing Kevin Durant comeback season, Wilkes compiled images from the same spot inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the basketball star played at the time for the Brooklyn Nets from throughout the season, fusing together depictions of the player from different days and months all on one court.

Even his seminal study of Ellis Island reaches back in time through Wilkes’ family history. The photographer shared with the crowd that his mother went through Ellis Island as a 9-year-old, coming from Austria to escape persecution from Adolf Hitler.

A mirror above a sink reflects the Statue of Liberty in an abandoned room.

Right Time, Right Place

His work in the hallowed halls of long-forsaken also demonstrates Wilkes’ uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time.

“It was as if I was being shown things very specifically,” Wilkes says, “and then once they showed it to me, it was taken away.”

The assignment on the south side of Ellis Island was only meant to last a single hour. Wilkes’ inspiration took him on a five-year journey documenting the oft-forgotten corner of history. His work studies the medical wards where immigrants were kept before they could enter the United States, while others with incurable diseases or who didn’t make it stayed there until their deaths.

A shoe is seen on a table in an abandoned room with the sunlight shining on it.

In one case, Wilkes recalls looking down, taking in the leaves scattered on the floor, brought in from the open windows. When he looked up from that height, he gazed at a mirror above a sink. He was at just the perfect angle to see the Statue of Liberty reflected back at him. Wilkes said he began to imagine the life of a woman stuck in the room, waking up sick with tuberculosis, and looking in the mirror.

“That’s as close as she ever got to freedom,” he says.

When Wilkes returned, the mirror had fallen. It was shattered.

Similarly, he came upon a shoe left on a table at just the right moment to see the sunlight hitting it. The light would only in just the right way a few minutes a day, but Wilkes walked by at just the right moment.

An room in Ellis Island's abandoned medical wards.

Wilkes’ Primordial Soup

It’s possible to see Wilkes’ “Day to Night” series, which is currently on display at Grand Central Station in New York City until the spring of 2024, as a pseudo-culmination of his career thus far. It combines characteristics seen throughout his body of work. PetaPixel featured his photo of the Grand Canyon and the Washington Monument in 2022 and 2021, respectively.

“I call it my primordial soup of all the things I love about the medium of photography,” Wilkes tells those in attendance.

Once again, a fascination with time is on display, this time as a palpable subject itself. Time tells the story as much as anything depicted in the image or the location. For the viewer, an entire day is visible at once, a chronological take on the panoramas that so enraptured Wilkes years prior.

An image of Central Park and a neighboring street shows night and day and the photo pans from left to right.

Bears Ears national monument in day and night.

However, it’s not a single day put on display. Wilkes, in reality, spends anywhere from 24 to 36 hours on location for his “Day to Night” photo shoots. Therefore, the morning a viewer may see as the start of an image may actually come a full day after the night perceived as bookending the work. It feels like another credit to the photographer’s conscientious approach not only for increasing the likelihood of getting just the right frame but also as a testament to Wilkes’ endurance when it comes to his work. Any critic would be hard-pressed to find details where Wilkes cuts corners, always seeming to go to extra lengths for his art.

“People always ask me, ‘How do you stay up for 36 hours? I can’t watch TV 36 hours.’ Well, it’s easy because I’m afraid of missing something. I don’t want to miss a moment,” Wilkes shares.

Sometimes, though, those almost-too-perfect details are mere happenstance. Wilkes tells the audience at the Apple Spotlight event how one image was taken on the convergence of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter, amid a full moon and a planetary alignment.

Animals drink from water in a photo that depicts day and night.

In another example of “Day to Night” distilling much of Wilkes’ career, the project feels essential in showing how the photographer’s work has transformed in light of his switch to digital. While it’s certainly possible to create the work of “Day to Night” using film, it would be a Herculean task. Wilkes says his “Day to Night” projects already take two to four months to edit the thousands of pictures down to the final image and complete the post work necessary for the final results, which are about 120 inches wide at native 300 DPI. Not that he’s complaining.

“When I’m taking pictures, I don’t care what’s going on in the world, I just go to my happy place,” Wilkes shares. “And it’s a great gift to be able to escape sometimes that way.”

Image credits: Stephen Wilkes