American photographer Stephen Wilkes, an artist who describes himself as a “relentless collector of magical moments,” returns to Ottawa today to unveil the latest image in his Day To Night series.
The dramatic, large-scale photograph offers a stunning view of Parliament Hill on Canada Day, complete with all the activity of this year’s sesquicentennial July 1 celebrations, from the tipi protest and security lineups to the fireworks and mainstage entertainers.
Like the others in Wilkes’ Day To Night series, it involved shooting hundreds of images from a fixed position over many hours, then compiling the photos seamlessly into one action-packed landscape that takes the eye through a day in the life of a place. Other subjects tackled by Wilkes over the past few years include The Vatican during Easter Mass, Paris during the Tour de France and Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Funded by the Embassy of the United States in Ottawa as a symbol of American-Canadian friendship on the occasion of Canada’s 150th, the project posed a unique challenge, Wilkes says. After weeks of research by a location scout and several more months to get the proper clearance, the photographer and his team were set to shoot from the roof of a government building across the street from Parliament Hill. A platform was constructed in advance to accommodate their gear.
“For me, it’s always about finding the view,” says Wilkes, who first visited Ottawa in 2015 as a speaker in the Contemporary Conversations series at the National Gallery of Canada. “I wanted to be high enough to see off into the vast distance, but I also look for what I call foreground narrative in all my pictures. There’s a sweet spot where you can almost recognize faces in the crowd, and that’s the edge I live on.
“When I do these pictures, I’m outdoors for a minimum of 15 to 18 hours straight,” the photographer adds, explaining his process. “I’m running electrical, charging batteries and firing the images into a computer so I can see what I’m getting in real time. And one of the things that was going to be really challenging about this one was the weather. There were some very, very extreme thunderstorms coming in, and the amount of rain was going to make it very difficult, based on the radar and all the weather updates we were getting. It was going to be very difficult to be on a rooftop with lenses and cameras and electrical equipment for any extended period.”
Two days before the big day, Wilkes was checking on the arrangements, and happened to notice a vacant office on the fourth floor of the building. The door was unlocked so he ventured in.
“Lo and behold, we walk into this one area and I saw, literally, the exact same view with a sliding window so I can actually get my camera out,” he said. “We were completely protected from all the rain, the wind, the humidity. It was absolutely perfect, the greatest gift of all. That’s where we shot the photograph from.”
He estimates he shot up to 1,800 images that day, then spent the next several months editing them down to the 50 or so images that make up the final print. There’s nothing automated about the shooting, and it’s not a time lapse. Wilkes watches the scene closely and presses the shutter each time.
“It’s sort of the complete opposite of the idea of instant,” he says. “I have an iPhone and I take iPhone pictures all the time, but what I do in this work is almost a meditative study of a place. My eyes never really leave the scene for 18 hours. I’m deeply looking at things, and when you do that, you begin to see things and narratives emerge that you never notice just by taking a picture and walking away.”
Wilkes, who’s known around the world for his fine art, documentary and commercial photography, began the Day To Night series in 2009, when he was hired to shoot the completion of the High Line walking trail in New York City. It led to the creation of other images of iconic New York sights before Wilkes turned his lens to locations in the rest of the U.S. and then some of the world’s most famous spots. As the project evolved, so did his vision.
“I realized I had somehow stepped into this really unique way of looking at time in a photograph,” he says. “One of the things you’ll see in my work is I’ve always been a student of history. To be able to slowly inject history into this series has been truly exciting, and I think Canada 150 was really something that was a perfect intersection between my ability to do this work over the last nine years, my craft and technique, and also embracing the element of history in so many of my latest works. I say I’m a relentless collector of magical moments, and it was a real thrill to be able to capture this important moment in Canada’s history.”
As for his experience in Ottawa, he loved it and was impressed by the resilience of celebrants, who were prepared for the day’s wild weather.
“New Yorkers are pretty diehard, but most of them would not have stayed outside as long as everybody did that day. I tell you, it was pretty impressive,” Wilkes says. “What I loved about the day was the energy you could feel in the crowd. No matter how wet it was, how inclement, the people were enthusiastic and happy, never down. I remember walking the streets afterwards, and at midnight, it was like the party was just beginning.”
The work was accepted by the National Gallery on behalf of the people of Canada, and it will be included in Wilkes’ forthcoming Day To Night book, to be published next year. Wilkes is also the first speaker in this season’s Contemporary Conversations series, which begins today.