Stephen Wilkes – An Epic Conversation with Kevin Raber & Jeff Schewe
STEPHEN WILKES IS PART PHOTOGRAPHER
PART TECHNICAL WIZARD
AND PART SOCIAL COMMENTATOR
WHILE BEING A REALLY NICE GUY
SORT OF RARE IN THIS INDUSTRY…
Publishers Note: You’re about to experience something new and different and we hope you enjoy the content of this very special segment/article. Jeff Schewe and I have been working on this and some other content similar to it. While it would have been ideal to visit Stephen Wilkes in New York City and have photographed him in his own studio, we are as everyone else if hampered by the current pandemic. Thus we needed to do this project using Zoom. Like videos I have done in the past, this is the story of Stephen Wilkes. It is entertaining (at least I think so). The videos and story are motivational as well as inspirational. I think you will agree. We like to call this epic because never has Stephen done something so lengthy and detail as he has with this interview and also because lengthwise it is a lot of content. I would highly recommend watching these videos individually or in segments. There are a lot of gems and Stephen is a great storyteller that you don’t want to miss anything. Jeff and I have others we would like to interview like this and thus we hope you enjoy this format for the time being. One day we can get out there and do this in person. Special thanks to Jeff Schewe for teaming up with me on this and big Thank You to PXL’s video producer Michael Durr for doing such a great job editing. This was not an easy project but as always Micahel comes through. Please enjoy.
Stephen is a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a BS in photography and a minor in business management from the Whitman School of Management in 1980. Ironically, his minor in business has served him as well as his photography degree as he is a very successful businessman who is an expert at leveraging his considerable skills and talents as a photographer. He’s not only good, he’s also really lucky…his talent is a gift (or curse depending on how you look at things) but his luck is a result of really hard work. Stephen works really hard-how else would you describe a person willing to spend up to 36 hours stuck up in an overhead crane just to create a friggin’ photograph? Well, ok…Stephen is a bit of a nut too.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have known him for over 2 decades. Stephen and I were selected as a members of a really exclusive club known as the Canon Explorer’s of Light. This was a group of high profile and talented photographers was put together by a crazy guy by the name of Michael Newler. Michael used his position in marketing at Canon USA to cherry-pick photographers he thought would help build Canon’s “brand”. He was careful to choose like-minded wingnutz and crackpots that knew how to have a good time (and spend Canon’s money on per diem). The only caveat was you had to shoot with Canon cameras. But if you didn’t, no worries, he would give you all the equipment you would possibly need and pay you to use Canon. Ah, the good ole’ days…I got kicked out of the Explorer’s program but that’s a story for a different time & place. Just understand that many of the Explorers became good friends and we all appreciated each other and Newler for the support and comradery.
Editors note: I would like to offer a popup with a list of the members as of 2006-the last list before I was excommunicated :~)
Back to Stephen and his charmed life. He opened his studio in New York City in 1983 during the heyday of advertising and editorial photography. His first big break-even before his studio opened was being an assistant to a worthy teacher and mentor (and father figure) Jay Maisel. Jay not only helped give Stephen a post-graduate degree in commercial photography, he also gave him a bootstrap into the ad world by hiring him to shoot commercial work under Jay’s banner. While Jay has a real talent for finding a creative and unique photograph with his camera, Stephen’s talent stemmed from being able to produce and create a unique photo on command and under difficult scenarios. Stephen had the technical skills to pick the camera, the lighting, casting, props, wardrobe, and a large crew to produce a photo on demand and on time (and usually under budget). He functioned almost like a motion picture production company. That served Stephen well when he decided to shoot a motion picture documentary about Jay Maisel’s move from his famous bank building in the Bowery District of NYC.
(click here to see the official movie trailer on Vimeo)
The movie offers a personal insight not only to Jay and his talent and life but also Stephen’s relationship with Jay. It’s actually a bit of a love story. The movie is available to stream on Amazon, VUDU and for purchase as a DVD (which I’ve bought because of the DVD extras containing bloopers and outtakes from the cutting room floor). Also, available on Apple TV.
If you are reading this, I’m presuming you may have the time and interest to learn a bit more about Stephen either before or after you see the Photo PxL interview. Here are some URL’s to peruse at your leisure; Stephen Wilkes’ website, here’s Stephen’s Instagram feed that gets regular updates, and his Twitter Feed. Stephen Wilkes Photography has a Facebook page as does his movie Jay Myself-which has updates about future film screenings.
If you want to see some of the other videos he’s shot and some video interviews about him be sure to check his Vimeo page. In 2016 Stephen was invited to give a Ted Talk and I give his talk high marks, although truth be told, his Ted Talk would have been successful if he just stood up there and simply showed his images without talking. I guess they don’t let you get away with that…
In addition to his commercial and editorial assignment work, Stephen has done a variety of personal assignments of his own volition. One of his most successful endeavors was shooting on Ellis Island. It resulted in a book but also the substantial impact of promoting the conservation and preservation efforts of Ellis Island itself. It’s an example of Stephen’s social commentary producing tangible results.
The Ellis Island book came after his first book CALIFORNIA ONE: The Pacific Coast Highway published by Friendly Press in 1990. Sadly, both of these books are out of print, so they are tough to find. I got my copy of Ellis Island used, in excellent shape. However, both books are available in limited quantity on Stephen’s Book page on his web site. Stephen has also hinted that something may be brewing about a possible second edition to the Ellis Island book–stay tuned. You’ll also find his most recent book and one of the motivations for doing this interview, Day to Night published by TASCHEN America LLC. in August 2019.
The Following Videos Are Best Enjoyed At Full Size. Click the bottom right corner in the video.
The Book Day to Night Page Turning
This video is of my wife paging through the entire book. Use the pause button to stop on a page.
If you buy this book, be prepared to have a big table to view it properly because Stephen (and TASHEN) have used liberal numbers of multiple page gatefolds. The book itself is an oversized 14.1” x 19.4” x 2” thick and weighs a hefty 10.7 pounds!
You can find the book wherever you like book shopping including Amazon (they have a great price). Or, you can order from TASCHEN for $150 for the regular book or the “Art” edition (No. 1-100) of the book that includes a numbered signed print of Brooklyn Bridge, New York City, 2016 for a mere $5,000 (I only have the standard version that Stephen has promised to sign at some point in the future).
To get a grasp of what Stephen goes through to produce these time manipulated views of reality, he climbs up on a crane or lift, sets up his camera and sits there and waits for things to happen and light to change. He shoots hundreds of individual captures-all in registration which is key-so that different sections of different captures can be assembled in post-production. These aren’t small format captures either, they are medium format captures using 60MP and larger raw captures. And, when I say he’s stuck up in his shooting perch, I mean he’s stuck in his shooting perch. Food & water and other necessities are hauled up or sent down in buckets or other containers. Don’t ask about how he, uh, does his “business” when stuck up in his perch–I did ask and he told me, but I promised not to tell you what he told me :~)
Some of the images Stephen has produced have been of events like Obama’s 2012 inauguration or Easter Sunday in the Vatican with the Pope. The interview is liberally sprinkled with interesting and funny stories outlining the challenges he faced and overcame. In addition to being a talented image-maker, he’s also a gifted storyteller.
However, these images are not just pretty pictures to look at. Stephen is again assuming the role of social commentator by turning his attention and ours, to endangered species and environments at risk. The most recent Day To Night image in his presentation was shot off the coast of Greenland and depicts whales and the changing sea ice and loss of glaciers.
But enough talking about Stephen, let’s get to listening to his interview. The interview is broken down into four separate videos. The first video is a look at Stephen’s his early days and his genesis as a photographer and creator. The run time for the first video is about 48 minutes.
Stephen Wilkes Part One Video (48:03)
The second video concentrates on one particular project that I believe is a critical tipping point in the history of fine art digital printing. The project was shot in 2000 and printed for a show in early 2001 for Epson America. The prints were assembled into a large gallery show that traveled to various cities starting in New York City. Here’s a story from the New York Times on March 25th, 2001 titled: ART/ARCHITECTURE; Making Each Detail More Real Than Reality. The article starts “HENRY WILHELM, a foremost authority on the conservation of color photographs, says that the show is an event that will be recorded in the history books and that he is thrilled to be alive to witness it.” I happen to agree with Henry and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to get Stephen to talk about his experiences shooting and printing the show. In addition to Stephen, Kevin, and myself, I invited some special guests to surprise Stephen (he really didn’t know–we all kept it top secret). During the Zoom interview, I added three special guests; Dan (Dano) Steinhardt, of Epson, R. Mac Holbert who printed the show and Henry Wilhelm noted expert on conservation and preservation. The run time for the second video is also about 48 minutes.
Stephen Wilkes Part Two (48:09)
The third video is the meat of the interview and is a detailed examination and story of how Stephen developed the Day To Night project and the evolution into the book and spinoffs into new directions. This third video is right at one hour long.
Stephen Wilkes Part Three (1:00)
I’ve included a separate video I shot last year when I took a class with Stephen and Jay at the Palm Springs Photo Festival called “A Deep Conversation About Photography” by Stephen Wilkes with special guest Jay Maisel. With these two guys teaching a 4-day workshop, how could you NOT take it? Truth is, I’ve wanted to take a class with Jay for a long time, and having Stephen along was an added bonus. The other reason I wanted to go was to see the West Coast premiere of the movie Jay Myself with Stephen and Jay himself in the audience!
During the workshop, Stephen pulled out his Day To Night book mockup and showed how the book was constructed and how the various main images and detail shots were put together. The interplay and dialog between Stephen and Jay were precious and something I had to get on video. Little did I know I would end up holding my damn iPhone for over 42 minutes! But once I started I couldn’t really stop. Consider this an extra bonus if you happen to be a glutton for punishment :~)
Stephen Wilkes and Jay Maisel – Palm Springs Photo Festival (42:33)
Let me take a moment to put a plugin for Stephen and any workshop he may be offering in the future. Stephen is a wonderful and patient teacher and the class I took was tremendous. Part of that, of course, was both Stephen and Jay together and I don’t know if that’s ever gonna happen like that again. But keep your eyes peeled for any opportunities.
Now, back to the interview…the fourth and final video is Stephen showing some recent work he’s done during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. The first new project was a shoot for National Geographic to document and show New York City’s emptiness during the city’s lockdown. Stephen thought of shooting NYC from the air and of course, “Lucky Stephen” (as I’m starting to call him) found some stellar but compelling depictions of an empty city shooting from a chopper.
Vanity Fair magazine called and asked Stephen to do some shots that documented the impact of the pandemic. He convinced the editor that shooting images of the essential workers who still had to keep working during the lockdown would be the best way of showing appreciation for their efforts. The story ran in the April 24th issue titled “Without Them, I Don’t Know What We’d Do”.
Stephen had to take a couple of trips into the city and while there, he had his assistant drive him around the city. He wanted to do some “socially distant drive-by shooting” (with a camera of course) of the city during and after the BLM protests. The results were unusual in that Stephen decided to do conversions to B&W. He normally shoots color but the B&W results are more evocative of classic photojournalism. So far, this is only a personal project but don’t be surprised to see the body of work show up somewhere. This final video is a relatively brief 24 minutes.
Stephen Wilkes Part 4 (24:29)
I would like to thank Stephen for putting this retrospective presentation together–it was a lot of work on his part-although it was a useful exercise and something to do during the pandemic lockdown. Although as you can see, he kept busy even through some of the worst of it. There are whole big chunks of his complete body of work that we didn’t get to cover such as; BETHLEHEM STEEL, BURNED OBJECTS, NUDES, HURRICANE KATRINA, INDIA and CUBA. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Stephen’s prints are available from a variety of dealers and galleries around the US.
I would also like to thank Kevin and the PhotoPxL crew as well as our special guests, Dano, Mac & Henry. They didn’t have to stay beyond their guest appearance gig but they hung in until the very end because this Zoom interview really is a special thing and Stephen is a special guy.
Hope you guys like the show!z
Jeff Schewe has been an award winning Advertising Photographer in Chicago for over 30 years. He is accomplished in tabletop, location, portraiture and particularly accomplished in computer imaging. Jeff shoots a variety of subject matter and likes to control as much of the production as possible. He does this by making his own models, designing and building his own sets, painting backgrounds and employing computer imaging. He has been doing his own imaging for almost 20 years in house on his high-end Macintosh systems. Jeff Schewe has been described as a Photoshop Guru’s Guru. He’s on the inside of the development and testing of Photoshop, Camera Raw and Lightroom and has helped guide and direct many features since Photoshop 4.0. Short of some of the Photoshop engineers, there’s probably not many people who knows Photoshop like Jeff. As an indication of his skills and knowledge of fine art printing, he has been named an Epson Stylus Pro. He is a past Apple Master of the Medium and has been inducted into the Photoshop Hall of Fame (2006).