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Cover Artist Stephen Wilkes
Westport, CT
Stephen Wilkes is widely recognized for his unique perspectives and the depth of emotion he has brought to fine art and commercial projects for more than two decades. With a wide range of notable awards to his credit and five major exhibitions in the past ten years, Wilkes has made an indelible impression on the world of photography.

© Stephen Wilkes

© Stephen Wilkes


Of his memorable Ellis Island images and book project, he says, “One of the great benefits of doing an analog film project like Ellis Island, Ghosts of Freedom, is that it forces you to develop a pure mastery of craft. It’s because of my work on Ellis that I’ve been able to apply this same craft to my digital images — allowing me to continue to push the boundaries of the medium.”

Wilkes’s current project, Day to Night™, combines his interests in architectural imagery and classic street photography with a fluid visual narrative of time passing within a single frame. In these images, epic scale, intricacies of detail and subtle shifts of light merge in an immersive visual experience.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

Stephen Wilkes: Since I started in the business, 1983.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SW: I don’t like the word specialties! For lack of a better word, I guess you can call me a generalist, because I love shooting anything that catches my eye.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

SW: My Instinct.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

SW: My eyes are my most important gear!

ASMP: Your photography output covers a very wide range of markets and media, from assignments for top commercial brands and editorial magazines to fine art production in both stills and motion imaging. All told, do you have a favorite subject and/or medium to work with, or is this totally project-dependent?

SW: I’m drawn to subjects that allow me to tell stories, images that resonate with history.

ASMP: You consider yourself a student of art history. Please name a few artists who inspire your work. How do you translate this inspiration into your own images?

SW: Degas, Monet, van Gogh, Magritte, Picasso, Giacometti, Bruegel the Elder…Hopper. There are so many extraordinary artists, these are just a few of my favorites. I think studying art history allows one to understand the language of Art… light, color, gesture and scale. By doing my own personal work, I’m inspired to find those relationships within a photograph.

ASMP: Did you have significant photographic mentors? When and under what conditions did you start your business?**

SW: I’ve been blessed to have several mentors throughout various stages of my career. I studied wedding photography when I was 13 years old with Rene Aresu.

Rene taught me, “they only throw the rice once.” It was a crash course in dealing with pressure and how to be a professional. I then met Bob Adelman when I was 17. Bob was teaching a class at the New School in New York City. He gave me one of my most valuable lessons, “If you want your pictures to speak to the world, you better have a solid understanding about what the world is really about.” He suggested that I get a great Liberal Arts education, and also said I needed to study business. As most photographers were, “Lousy business men!”

I decided at that moment to go to college at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications, where I met my third mentor, Tom Richards, or as we lovingly call him TR. TR was the person who recognized that I had a gift in the way I saw color. He inspired me to work almost exclusively in color throughout my last years of college.

It was during my junior year of college that I would meet the key mentor in my career. I was looking for an internship that summer, when I discovered the work of Jay Maisel. As soon as I began to study Jay’s work, I immediately knew that I HAD to meet him. I felt he spoke the language of color that I was just beginning to understand. I worked for Jay during the summer of my junior year.

When I went back to school, I traveled to China, documenting the first major American University trip for Syracuse University’s School of Visual Performing Arts. When I returned, I shared this new body of work with Jay. We sat and spoke about my career after viewing those pictures, it was then that Jay said, “You’re too good to keep assisting, you need to be shooting your own work”.

He offered me an opportunity that was a game changer for someone like myself. He asked if I was interested in becoming his associate. Which I promptly accepted! That’s how my career got started. I spent two years as Jay’s associate, and then went out on my own.

ASMP: Your work is very influenced by the passage of time and changing light within a scene. What is it about these elements that captivate you the most?

SW: I’ve always felt that there is history in light… so anything that evokes time and history I find fascinating. I simply love bringing history to life.

ASMP: Your Ellis Island project began as a short editorial assignment, which subsequently became a five-year project. Previous to Ellis Island, had you undertaken other long-term documentation or photo projects? If so, what were they?

SW: Ellis was the first of what is now a long line of documentary projects I’ve created. It was through working on Ellis that I discovered the power of a long-term study (five years) on a single place. Revisiting the island through season after season, year after year, I discovered the power and depth that resonates through such a study.

ASMP: Did your extended work on the Ellis Island project result in changes in your approach to commercial work or your business focus?

SW: As more people began to see Ellis Island, as not only a documentary project, but after I had my first exhibition, it became clear that people wanted to collect this work as art. It was at that point that I had started with my new agent, Howard Bernstein. To Howard’s credit, he saw the power in my Ellis work, and the several personal projects that followed. He believed the commercial world would embrace these projects as well. I then began to see how my personal work could inspire my commercial assignments. I’ve found that relationship continues for me today, they are symbiotic.

ASMP: You work with your wife Bette, as producer and business partner. How long have you been working together and how did this working relationship initiate/develop?

SW: Bette and I have worked together since I left Jay Maisel’s studio in the early 80’s. She had a very successful business on her own for several years, and I knew she had an amazing business sense and savvy. I always said that Bette could seriously run a Fortune 500 company; she’s got that type of mind and personality. I think we work well as a team because we respect each other’s strengths and recognize our own weaknesses. For us it’s a perfect balance. There is great truth to the saying, behind every successful man is a GREAT woman!

ASMP: How do you keep the workflow organized in your professional relationship? Do you each have specific designated tasks, or do your roles vary depending on the project?

SW: Bette runs the business; I am involved in the direction and marketing but my primary focus is the creative. Her ability to executive produce and run the day-to-day, has enabled me to really go deeper creatively, focusing almost entirely on making images.

ASMP: How do you maintain a healthy relationship in the transition from work to home life? Do you have any tips about maintaining a work/life balance for other photographers who live and work with a partner?

SW: Respect each other’s strengths, and understand your individual weaknesses. In doing so, if you’re the right match… you’ll find a balance.

ASMP: Are there other members of your team or dedicated collaborators (i.e. assistants, digital techs, lighting crew, workflow specialists, etc) who you find are indispensible or of primary importance to your work? If so, which collaborators/crew do you depend on the most?

SW: I’ve always said, you’re only as good as the people around you. My assistant is my right hand and I’ve been blessed to work with many great ones over the years. My retoucher, whom I’ve worked with for many years, plays a critical role in bringing my vision to life. I’ve always tried to surround myself with people who love the journey and who have the passion to create great photographs. Hard work isn’t as hard when you truly love what you’re doing.

ASMP: When did you begin incorporating motion imaging, time-lapse techniques and video in your work? What did you find most challenging when you first began experimenting with motion?

SW: I actually worked as a commercial director in the 90s. I was first represented by Ackerman and Benson; a few years later I moved to RSA. I really enjoyed directing, but felt at the time that I really missed my still work. I decided to go back to stills, knowing down the road I would revisit filmmaking and directing at some point. The opportunity to revisit motion came with the Vanity Fair videos I did on the Madoff scandal. It was through that project that I realized there was an opportunity to tell important stories on the Web in a short form video.

My TimeLapse projects started with a piece I did for Fortune magazine, 24 Hours at Walmart. This led me to doing time-lapse videos of many of my Day to Night™ images. The most challenging thing I’ve found about doing motion vs. stills is that there are a lot more people involved in the process of making a film. A still image tells a story in one frame. Motion allows you to tell a multitude of aspects of a specific story; it’s a completely different approach figuratively and mentally. I think for any serious still photographer, there’s an adjustment period in understanding the group aspect of the filmmaking process.

What’s exciting about film today is the ability to shoot HD video on still cameras, edit work on laptops; things that were really costly to do a few years ago are now available to everyone.

ASMP: Your behind-the-scenes video of the World Cup shoot for Verizon shows you taking on the role of director rather than functioning strictly as a photographer. Do you feel equally comfortable in both of these roles or does your comfort level or approach to the work differ?

SW: Yes, in terms of directing talent, I approach my still and film work with a similar mentality. When I work with talent I like to create a scene, a mood, I want it to feel like a real moment. I start by conveying a clear and concise description of what I’m after. I love working with actors, they can embody the character that I’m interested in seeing. The World Cup is a frenetic and crazy event. We went to extraordinary levels to capture the fans in the most realistic way. Beyond all the intricate details that went into the wardrobe, styling and makeup was the need to create that frenetic energy and realism of an actual world cup event.

ASMP: What is the largest number of people you’ve directed and/or collaborated with on a shoot? When working on large projects, how do you organize and delegate to your team?

SW: 350. The organization of all our projects, large and small, is led by my wife Bette. She’s simply the best executive producer in this business.

ASMP: Are there specific technical or conceptual resources (rather than purely aesthetic ones) that you consult on a regular basis for reference, inspiration and/or as a teaching tool in furthering your exploration of motion imaging?

SW: I try and watch as many movies, cable and TV shows as I can.

ASMP: What role you feel motion work (as distinct from still imaging) will play in your future? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

SW: Motion film has been with us for a very long time. Stills and film have coexisted with each other for decades. What has changed is that now we can view video anywhere. Video is now accessible 24/7, all within the reach of our cell phones. There’s an enormous amount of noise going on within the video community, as everyone who owns a camera has become a videographer/filmmaker. That being said, this is an historically significant moment, as technology has leveled the playing field, allowing for this mass of YouTube expression.

Will video be the future of all imaging? I’m not so sure. I believe that the power of the still image is unique, and that uniqueness or rarity grows in value as video becomes more popular. There’s room for both; I believe the future of visual media is an exciting one. Apps like Instagram have enormous potential to change the face of photojournalism, as I witnessed first-hand when I and four other photojournalists covered megastorm Sandy for Time Magazine.

Our ability to have multiple platforms in which we can see images and videos allow us all to share our individual experiences in a deeper and more meaningful way.

ASMP: One of the motion projects featured on your Web site is a series of documentary interviews with victims of the Madoff debacle, shot for Vanity Fair. Had you previously worked in this style of video reportage or was this a new departure? Please tell us about this experience and any background research or preparation you did before embarking on these shoots.

SW: That was the first time I explored video reportage, and it certainly was a departure for me. I felt the victims of this financial disaster needed to have their voices heard. I was able to share their personal stories with the world at large on the Web, through the VanityFair.com website. Most of the videos on Vanity Fair up until that point dealt strictly with behind-the-scenes videos. The success of the Madoff videos showed that there was a serious audience out there; people were interested in seeing a lot more than just behind-the-scenes videos on the Web.

The shoots were incredibly challenging on a multitude of levels. Preparation-wise, we ended up doing the still photographs first; my thinking was that by shooting the stills first, I would be able to build a rapport with my subjects prior to filming. After we shot the stills, we would immediately go into filming the videos. In several of the interviews, we only had an hour to do both. In any interview, being a good listener is everything. You’ll always know what the next question is if you just listen. The great Walter Cronkite taught me that when I was lucky enough to meet him as a high school student…His words rang in my ear throughout this project.

ASMP: In addition to your editorial and commercial assignment work, you’ve also developed a very successful fine art career. Does your creative output or business dealings related to fine art require a different approach?

SW: Yes. Being fine artist begins with figuring out what you want to say as an artist. My art is about my passion, it’s what’s in my soul. I have no road map, it’s purely instinct. Commercial projects are really collaborations, concepts are thought through, and I’m hired to bring my vision to someone else’s concept. While I will give it everything I’ve got to make the most stunning photograph possible within the context of the concept, it’s not coming directly from my personal source.

With my personal work, my collaboration is limited to working with my team; my assistant, retoucher and printer, who all help bring my vision to life.

ASMP: Do you have any advice or tips for other commercial photographers seeking to place their work in the fine art marketplace?

SW: Shoot things that are deeply personal to you; set aside times throughout the year to do your own work.

ASMP: What has been your proudest moment to date in your professional career? What made that particular moment so special?

SW: I’ve been blessed with a few. The two that stand out the most would be the publication of my books California One: The Pacific Coast Highway and Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom. The other would be being interviewed by my two favorite shows, NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, and most recently, CBS Sunday Morning with Martha Teichner.

They all were true benchmarks in my career. I loved talking to Martha Teichner and Scott Simon. The fact that they were so interested in sharing my work with their audience was an incredibly humbling moment for me, amazing really.

ASMP: What is the biggest work or career challenge you’ve faced to date? How did you resolve it and what did you learn as a result?

SW: Reinventing myself.

ASMP: In your opinion, what is the key to maintaining inspiration? How do you keep your eye fresh?

SW: Inspiration happens through doing work. The more I work, the more things come into my orbit.

ASMP: Do you have any tips about keeping a photography business solvent in today’s economy and success in differentiating oneself and one’s services in such a competitive marketplace?

SW: Don’t be afraid of failure, embrace change. Lead, don’t follow. Compete with yourself.

ASMP: What are your plans for the future? Do you have any new projects (or exhibition plans for past/current projects) in the works?

SW: Day to Night around the world… my next major exhibition will be in Los Angeles at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in 2013.