T his interview is the third in the series in which a former photographer featured on POP interviews another photographer. Earlier this year Justin Fantl mentioned he wanted to interview Stephen Wilkes, one of the iconic and highly prolific photographers of our time who is successful both as a fine art and commercial shooter. Wilkes is most recently known for his fine art series Day to Night and for the monograph Ellis Island: Ghosts of Freedom, which helped secure $6million in funding for the restoration of the south side of the island. Six months went by and I’d thought about it on and off and one day it just landed in my inbox. Edited and ready to publish. I was excited to get the email from Justin and so incredibly impressed when I read the interview and honored to publish it on POP.
The photographer-to-photographer interviews are special. The photographer selects whom they are inspired by and the conversation always reflect this. And they dive deep and spend time with subjects vital to photographers. Justin and Stephen talked about profound early inspiration, the nature and challenges of creativity and the importance of always looking, working with fear and so much more. This is a fantastic interview and I’m thankful to Justin and Stephen for all their work and commitment to making this a true sharing of ideas that will resonate deeply with other photographers.
A Conversation with Stephen Wilkes by Justin Fantl:
I met Stephen Wilkes this last spring. He is an incredible teller of stories. He has been in the photography business since age 16 and has a vast wealth of experience, knowledge and the kind of career arc that we all aspire to. On top of that he is an incredibly humble and positive person. We were able to chat again this summer and I asked if I might record our conversation. I got so much out of our talk and I hope that anyone reading this does as well.
JF: In a previous conversation you spoke about the impact of seeing the painting, “The Harvester’s” by Breugel The Elder. When did you first see it?
SW: I first saw the painting at The Met, I believe I was on a 7th grade field trip . I had this amazing class, that was called “ArtSocCore.” The class was about art history and social studies, merging the two together. My teacher’s were both big fans of Bruegel, the Elder. I remember when we went to the museum We saw this painting for the first time, It just blew my mind. I became really obsessed with his work. About the same time I discovered the work of Hieronymus Bosch, who had influenced many of Bruegel’s paintings’. There was this fascinating connection between these two artists, who were exploring landscape along with scale on a figurative level. Studying them changed the way I looked at landscapes.
When you look at art history, I believe Bruegel essentially redefined landscape painting. At that time, I don’t think anybody had ever looked at a landscape or painted a landscape in the way he did. That was always something that stuck with me. When you stand and look at “The Harvesters”, you can actually begin to feel the sweat that these workers have on their brow. Even though the scale of the workers within the painting is rendered so small, their body language and gesture, creates an enormous sense of what they are experiencing. “The Harvesters” creates an intimate human narrative, within the breath of an epic landscape.
JF: So you recognized something in the work that somehow struck a chord. Did you set out to recreate that feeling in your own work or was that something you were even conscious of at the time?
SW: Well, I think creativity and whole process of where inspiration comes from is somewhat nebulous in a way. You just don’t know how things necessarily percolate. I think for me, as I began to do Day to Night I realized that I was connecting to something familiar. In fact, Holly Hughes at PDN came up to me at an AIPAD show in NYC and said that my work reminded her of Bruegel. I realized that was the first time that someone mentioned that to me. It made a connection to my past and to what I was currently doing. It was one of those, “Ah Ha” moments. I thought, “You’re right!” and my memory of the Harvesters came back. I started to re-investigate that memory and I realized, that was exactly what I was channeling in a way. And when I say “That”, I mean this concept of scale and gesture and narrative in my photographs. Sometimes there is a trigger, somebody says something and all of a sudden bingo, you connect the dots.
JF: One thing you mentioned was this idea of the “nebulous wellspring of creativity.” I know when you were younger you talked about going to museums and the impact that had. And then years later that influence rose to the surface at some point. I think that everyone operates differently. I feel that some artists very much look outside of themselves for inspiration while others look more within. My question is where do you look in the world now. Are you still looking at paintings or photographs? Or, are you not?
SW: I will just tell you about an experience I had the other day. I was at the Getty Center and we had a family affair up there for my nephew. After the luncheon was over, I went into the impressionist wing where they have all these extraordinary paintings and sculptures. In particular there was a pair of Degas sculptures that caught my eye. I was captivated by the gesture and body language and a sense of color from the paintings surrounding them.
That night, we went to a pool party, and as night fell the pool lights came on. It bathed the pool in a stunning red light. All these little kids were swimming in the pool. I just grabbed my iphone and took a picture of one little girl floating in the water. It was amazing because it was such a fluid and loose moment. I realized that if you look at Degas’s work, there is always this sense of fluidity in the gesture and body language, my little snapshot really had some of that feeling. I’m convinced that I saw that image and recognized it because of my exposure to the museum, specifically the sculptures and paintings from that afternoon. Sometimes you can make a hard connection to inspiration, other times it may not be as apparent.
JF: So for you it seems important to keep looking.
SW: Yes. The more you expose yourself to looking at art, the more that it feeds into your collective memory, and the opportunity for these things to connect with previous memories or things you have seen or experienced increases. I think this is really where creativity and inspiration comes from. It’s really a conglomeration of all these life experiences. I think if you continual feed or supply water to that pool, the frequency of making connections and creative output increases. If you don’t do that, you are essentially reusing the water and it never gets quite as fresh.
JF: I have had similar experiences as well. I can be working on an image and feel I’ve somehow looked at it years ago and then all of a sudden there will be moment of recognition and I realize where it came from. And isn’t it interesting how that happens.
SW: Yes, and other people can point it out to. It’s only in doing the actual work that you develop ideas and other connections begin to happen. It’s a multipronged effect. Inspiration comes from your sphere of influence; things that you see and recognize and study and experience on any level. Then its about how you put yourself into an environment, through the work process, that you begin to expand on potential connections.
JF: You can’t just sit around and talk about it all day.
SW: No, and everybody wants that great idea to come and everyone wants to know what inspired you to do it. In “Day to Night”, there were a multitude of things that inspired me, and caused that to come to fruition. Anybody who really works at their art will tell you that you get inspired through the work, you have to do the work. You have to get out and do it. It’s only through the work process that you begin to unravel what the essence of something is. What’s really clawing at you internally that you can’t help but to do. You hear writers talk about how a book begins to write itself, I really think that is true about all the arts. Personally, for me it’s never about comfort. I’m simply not working hard enough if it feels too comfortable. That sense of uneasiness, or fear can be a very powerful force if you can harness it. The key is being able to turn fear into a drive to explore something new.
JF: Do you have those moments when you are afraid or doubting yourself? What is your reaction to that fear? What do you do?
SW: We all have doubt and fear at times, I have learned to make it work for me rather than against me. Negativity is such a powerful force in this world. If you can take something negative and turn it into a positive, then I believe positive things will come into your orbit. When things look bad I sometimes say, “Well, maybe this will end up being cool.” I don’t necessarily say, “It’s not going to work, or this sucks, or I don’t want to do this, I want to go home now.” I just don’t do that. I have learned that if you are patient things can change and sometimes it can change for the better. The interesting thing is that we previsualize what we think is the best picture in our minds eye. The tendency is that you get so closeminded or hyper focused on what you want and what you think IS the picture that you miss what IS really there. I believe in doing your homework, but also living in the moment so that I can react to the changes and nuances and subtleties happening in front of me. If I am frozen in my place in terms of what I think, I miss what is really happening. You have to develop an ability to be very rigid in preparation but flexible in the moment, I think that is key.
JF: In a previous conversation we had, I remember that you used the term “flow state” several times. Is that sort of what you are getting at?
SW: Yes, that’s exactly it. How do you get to a flow state? It’s not an easy thing. It’s a deeply personal thing. I think that a lot of it has to do with being able to step back and step outside your own individual workflow, and stress, and how you react to, and deal with it. How do you deal with challenges and negativity? I think one thing that makes artists great is their sensitivity. It’s also what can hurt them. It’s like everything in life, you need to find a balance.
I try and compete with myself. I avoid getting caught up in what everyone else is doing. In our business it has unfortunately become extremely competitive because of the market over the last few years. The ability to compete with yourself, and remain positive is critical. I avoid getting caught up with negative and even toxic emotions which create a form of paralysis. I’ve always felt that freeing yourself of negativity, opens up creative potential.
JF: All of us have had a negative experience on one level or another, whether losing out on a job, dealing with a challenging client, or getting in a creative rut, and it can sometimes be difficult to deal with. I feel like it takes some time to learn how to deal with some of those issues. As you said, it’s a different market now and a highly competitive one at that. What is your philosophy when you lose out on a job?
SW: (Laughing) Honestly, all I can say is it’s their loss! It’s what I say! It’s not my loss, it’s their loss. I just flip the page. To me, there is nothing positive that comes from spilled milk and there is nothing that I am going to do, or rethink or beat myself up about that will somehow change that outcome. All that worrying and angst and envy, all it does is freeze you. I just get it out and say goodbye. Next! I focus on what I am going to do. What do I want to do, as opposed to what someone else wanted to hire me for, I just move on.
In terms of working, I think there are a lot of photographers whose work is their job. There is no separation from their own work and their job if that makes sense. In other words there is no separation between their commercial work and personal work. I’ve been extremely fortunate to been able to meld the two together. My personal work comes from my soul. My commercial work has always been wonderful and I have had incredible opportunities and adventures. It has taken me places and allowed me to see and experience things that I never would have otherwise. My commercial work has certainly contributed to my art, but it doesn’t source from inside my soul. It’s different. Commercially I’m really a collaborator, I’m executing a concept and solving a problem. My own work is about the things that come from within me, the things that I’m deeply passionate about. So they feel different, both tap into my creativity, but emerge from different places. I think as an artist it is a very, very important thing for me to keep exploring and that’s what I really want to do.
JF: It seems like in your personal work, especially the Day to Night series there is quite a lot of problem solving.
SW: Exactly. What you can see in Day To Night is that essentially I have taken everything that I love about photography and distilled it into one thing. It actually incorporates everything that I love to do. I can take all the skill sets I have learned in photography and combine them into one photograph. I feel in a way that it has an orchestral type of dimension photographically, and I am excited about that. I feel that there is an incredibly deep narrative that happens within these images and for me it’s a tremendous love. Time has essentially become my instrument to write my narrative with, and that is an amazing thing. You always want to try and find something that you can rediscover each time you look at it. Even though you might be photographing a similar thing, the hope is that each time, it will give you a different experience.
I think it’s interesting that people have always and continue to shoot sunsets, they are never quite the same, and that’s what’s magical about them. You get down to these simplistic forms but there is always that variance, as nature never really repeats itself.
JF: So you aren’t afraid to shoot sunsets?
SW: (Laughing) No, I am not afraid to shoot sunsets, absolutely not! My point is, is that if you can find something to explore with a technique that can be so varied it’s very exciting. It’s a fantastic thing, and I kind of feel like I am doing that with Day to Night. I am dealing with the concept of time and what happens within a given period and it’s so varied and different no matter how much my process remains the same. There is always something different that I am seeing just through the sheer act of time and its effect on a place.
As photographers this is an amazing time to be alive and to embrace all these tools we have to express ourselves and accomplish things we could never imagine or visualize. I think the key thing in this digital world is to pick a point and go for it. You do sort of have to know where you want to go though.
JF: So you are embracing new technologies. I know you are on instagram but for some photographers it’s been a bit of a struggle or issue. How do you feel about instagram and the direction of things?
SW: Well there has become a commoditization of photography. Everybody is a photographer now, that sort of thing. Instagram is a really fascinating thing for me. I don’t show anything that I don’t shoot on the Iphone. The reason I do that is the idea that we all have the same camera. It’s about looking and seeing, not about the technical virtuosity of my camera. Instagram is about seeing, and I want to show you what I just saw and we can all see together and it’s not about anything else. It’s really just about seeing and that’s why I love it. I love to be able to react to things that catch my eye and I enjoy sharing them with others. I don’t know how you feel, but as a photographer, I’ve always felt we have our own language.
Photography is a language and the image is the core of that language. When you can take a photograph and make people feel and experience a story and emotion in a single photograph, it becomes an enormously powerful vehicle. Still images last within us with amazing depth and clarity. It’s through Instagram, that the language of photography has been raised to the surface for the masses. It’s finally being acknowledged for what I believe most photographers have known for decades. . . that there is a language in still images. Now the rest of the world is recognizing it and seeing it. I think it’s going to raise the bar and make people appreciate the real mastery of the language of (photography). It’s not unlike when the Guttenberg press came about and suddenly books were available to everybody. It didn’t make everyone a great writer. What it did do is elevate the status of people who were masters of the craft. The great practitioners are going to be venerable and important.
JF: When you are taking pictures now, whether for yourself or for an assignment, is it a very conscious endeavour or more reactive at this point? I would guess it is conscious but I think what I am trying to get at is this idea of seeing and heightened sense of visually interpreting the world.
SW: Generally, I look at a scene and I see the frame already. So it’s very intuitive. There is a rare occasion where I shift something. Over the years I have found that wherever I first drop my sticks is usually the best angle. That doesn’t mean that’s the only thing I try. I may move through 3 or 4 other positions. But usually the first place, is THE place. What that tells you is that you begin to trust your instincts and what your process is. I will try other places, because I don’t settle. I am always trying and questioning. If I just accepted that first place I would almost feel like I was being lazy and I was missing something else. I go in and explore, and move through the space and the picture I see in my head. It’s kind of a routine that I go through, moving forward, moving back. . .but in the end I usually come right back to where I dropped sticks the first time. I think that first spot could be described as the place where instinct and serendipity collide. The first position is fresh, raw, unfiltered. It’s not overly thought out. It doesn’t mean I don’t go through the process, it’s that there is something magical about that first drop.
JF: Do you know the photographer Richard Barnes? There is something I once read that he had said to his students that always resonated with me. That is, “Don’t forget to turn around.”
SW: Yes and not only turn around. .. but walk around your subject. Notice how the light moves and how the narrative changes. You can’t really experience that unless you develop some kind of routine or process. You should always stay open and aware to the possibilities. You can pre-visualize or pre-light as much as you want but in the end there are times when you have to have the guts to let it all go. There are points you have to recognize when you shoot people, and in particular athletes or other artists , you have to sort of go with them in a way. If you are going to be overpowering you aren’t going to get them. It’s difficult to adapt people to your way of working. You want the subject to let go and really become who they are. You can put people in the moment but then let them become part of that. As a photographer I am not interested in making them look like what I think they should be, I want to record who they are. When you can sense that and let it happen and embrace it, that’s when you begin to open the door.
JF: I feel like this relates to Day to Night in the sense that the people in those images don’t really have a sense that they are being photographed. You are just up there, watching, waiting. You have control of the frame but that’s almost it. The rest is in a way, left up to humanity.
SW: Yes, that’s right I have to go in with the attitude that I have to let go. I have to react to what is in front of me. You aren’t thinking about it. They aren’t thinking about it. Just let it happen. You are just allowing your muscles and memory to do what you do. Home run hitters don’t try to hit home runs, they relax and let the game come to them. Once I’m ready to shoot, focused on the scene in front of my lens, I will see and study all the little narratives occurring below. I can’t plan for an arrest, like on the Santa Monica pier, or someone stepping in dog poop in Union Square. You just can’t plan for those moments. I can only plan on being patient, positive and ready for whatever comes my way.
To see more of Stephen’s and Justin’s work, please visit their websites: