Stephen Wilkes
2,077,104 views • 12:36

I'm driven by pure passion to create photographs that tell stories. Photography can be described as the recording of a single moment frozen within a fraction of time. Each moment or photograph represents a tangible piece of our memories as time passes. But what if you could capture more than one moment in a photograph? What if a photograph could actually collapse time, compressing the best moments of the day and the night seamlessly into one single image?

I've created a concept called "Day to Night" and I believe it's going to change the way you look at the world. I know it has for me.

My process begins by photographing iconic locations, places that are part of what I call our collective memory. I photograph from a fixed vantage point, and I never move. I capture the fleeting moments of humanity and light as time passes. Photographing for anywhere from 15 to 30 hours and shooting over 1,500 images, I then choose the best moments of the day and night.

Using time as a guide, I seamlessly blend those best moments into one single photograph, visualizing our conscious journey with time. I can take you to Paris for a view from the Tournelle Bridge. And I can show you the early morning rowers along the River Seine. And simultaneously, I can show you Notre Dame aglow at night. And in between, I can show you the romance of the City of Light.

I am essentially a street photographer from 50 feet in the air, and every single thing you see in this photograph actually happened on this day.

Day to Night is a global project, and my work has always been about history. I'm fascinated by the concept of going to a place like Venice and actually seeing it during a specific event. And I decided I wanted to see the historical Regata, an event that's actually been taking place since 1498. The boats and the costumes look exactly as they did then. And an important element that I really want you guys to understand is: this is not a timelapse, this is me photographing throughout the day and the night. I am a relentless collector of magical moments. And the thing that drives me is the fear of just missing one of them.

The entire concept came about in 1996. LIFE Magazine commissioned me to create a panoramic photograph of the cast and crew of Baz Luhrmann's film Romeo + Juliet. I got to the set and realized: it's a square. So the only way I could actually create a panoramic was to shoot a collage of 250 single images. So I had DiCaprio and Claire Danes embracing. And as I pan my camera to the right, I noticed there was a mirror on the wall and I saw they were actually reflecting in it. And for that one moment, that one image I asked them, "Would you guys just kiss for this one picture?" And then I came back to my studio in New York, and I hand-glued these 250 images together and stood back and went, "Wow, this is so cool! I'm changing time in a photograph." And that concept actually stayed with me for 13 years until technology finally has caught up to my dreams.

This is an image I created of the Santa Monica Pier, Day to Night. And I'm going to show you a little video that gives you an idea of what it's like being with me when I do these pictures. To start with, you have to understand that to get views like this, most of my time is spent up high, and I'm usually in a cherry picker or a crane. So this is a typical day, 12-18 hours, non-stop capturing the entire day unfold.

One of the things that's great is I love to people-watch. And trust me when I tell you, this is the greatest seat in the house to have.

But this is really how I go about creating these photographs. So once I decide on my view and the location, I have to decide where day begins and night ends. And that's what I call the time vector. Einstein described time as a fabric. Think of the surface of a trampoline: it warps and stretches with gravity. I see time as a fabric as well, except I take that fabric and flatten it, compress it into single plane.

One of the unique aspects of this work is also, if you look at all my pictures, the time vector changes: sometimes I'll go left to right, sometimes front to back, up or down, even diagonally. I am exploring the space-time continuum within a two-dimensional still photograph.

Now when I do these pictures, it's literally like a real-time puzzle going on in my mind. I build a photograph based on time, and this is what I call the master plate. This can take us several months to complete. The fun thing about this work is I have absolutely zero control when I get up there on any given day and capture photographs. So I never know who's going to be in the picture, if it's going to be a great sunrise or sunset — no control. It's at the end of the process, if I've had a really great day and everything remained the same, that I then decide who's in and who's out, and it's all based on time. I'll take those best moments that I pick over a month of editing and they get seamlessly blended into the master plate. I'm compressing the day and night as I saw it, creating a unique harmony between these two very discordant worlds.

Painting has always been a really important influence in all my work and I've always been a huge fan of Albert Bierstadt, the great Hudson River School painter. He inspired a recent series that I did on the National Parks. This is Bierstadt's Yosemite Valley. So this is the photograph I created of Yosemite. This is actually the cover story of the 2016 January issue of National Geographic. I photographed for over 30 hours in this picture. I was literally on the side of a cliff, capturing the stars and the moonlight as it transitions, the moonlight lighting El Capitan. And I also captured this transition of time throughout the landscape. The best part is obviously seeing the magical moments of humanity as time changed — from day into night.

And on a personal note, I actually had a photocopy of Bierstadt's painting in my pocket. And when that sun started to rise in the valley, I started to literally shake with excitement because I looked at the painting and I go, "Oh my god, I'm getting Bierstadt's exact same lighting 100 years earlier."

Day to Night is about all the things, it's like a compilation of all the things I love about the medium of photography. It's about landscape, it's about street photography, it's about color, it's about architecture, perspective, scale — and, especially, history.

This is one of the most historical moments I've been able to photograph, the 2013 Presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama. And if you look closely in this picture, you can actually see time changing in those large television sets. You can see Michelle waiting with the children, the president now greets the crowd, he takes his oath, and now he's speaking to the people. There's so many challenging aspects when I create photographs like this. For this particular photograph, I was in a 50-foot scissor lift up in the air and it was not very stable. So every time my assistant and I shifted our weight, our horizon line shifted. So for every picture you see, and there were about 1,800 in this picture, we both had to tape our feet into position every time I clicked the shutter. (Applause)

I've learned so many extraordinary things doing this work. I think the two most important are patience and the power of observation. When you photograph a city like New York from above, I discovered that those people in cars that I sort of live with everyday, they don't look like people in cars anymore. They feel like a giant school of fish, it was a form of emergent behavior. And when people describe the energy of New York, I think this photograph begins to really capture that. When you look closer in my work, you can see there's stories going on. You realize that Times Square is a canyon, it's shadow and it's sunlight. So I decided, in this photograph, I would checkerboard time. So wherever the shadows are, it's night and wherever the sun is, it's actually day.

Time is this extraordinary thing that we never can really wrap our heads around. But in a very unique and special way, I believe these photographs begin to put a face on time. They embody a new metaphysical visual reality. When you spend 15 hours looking at a place, you're going to see things a little differently than if you or I walked up with our camera, took a picture, and then walked away.

This was a perfect example. I call it "Sacré-Coeur Selfie." I watched over 15 hours all these people not even look at Sacré-Coeur. They were more interested in using it as a backdrop. They would walk up, take a picture, and then walk away. And I found this to be an absolutely extraordinary example, a powerful disconnect between what we think the human experience is versus what the human experience is evolving into. The act of sharing has suddenly become more important than the experience itself. (Applause)

And finally, my most recent image, which has such a special meaning for me personally: this is the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. And this is photographed in the middle of the Seronera, this is not a reserve. I went specifically during the peak migration to hopefully capture the most diverse range of animals. Unfortunately, when we got there, there was a drought going on during the peak migration, a five-week drought. So all the animals were drawn to the water. I found this one watering hole, and felt if everything remained the same way it was behaving, I had a real opportunity to capture something unique.

We spent three days studying it, and nothing could have prepared me for what I witnessed during our shoot day. I photographed for 26 hours in a sealed crocodile blind, 18 feet in the air. What I witnessed was unimaginable. Frankly, it was Biblical. We saw, for 26 hours, all these competitive species share a single resource called water. The same resource that humanity is supposed to have wars over during the next 50 years. The animals never even grunted at each other. They seem to understand something that we humans don't. That this precious resource called water is something we all have to share.

When I created this picture, I realized that Day to Night is really a new way of seeing, compressing time, exploring the space-time continuum within a photograph.

As technology evolves along with photography, photographs will not only communicate a deeper meaning of time and memory, but they will compose a new narrative of untold stories, creating a timeless window into our world.

Thank you.