On January 20, 2021, photographer and National Geographic explorer Stephen Wilkes found himself almost exactly where he had been eight years earlier for President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration: suspended 40 feet in the air on the National Mall.
At 5:30 a.m. on this latest inauguration day, Wilkes and his assistant Lenny Christopher assumed their positions in a shaky scissor lift as 35 mile-per-hour winds whipped them with freezing rain. Wilkes, knowing that his marathon session had only just begun, locked his camera in place and took a picture.
When Wilkes finally climbed down 15 hours later, he had taken more than 1,500 photographs spanning the day from dawn until nightfall. Each one reveals a moment that captivated Wilkes.
“It literally is almost like a meditation when I work,” Wilkes says. “The winds can be blowing and howling, but when it comes to me being present, I'm always looking. I'm always watching the way the clouds are moving. I'm watching the way the light is moving. I'm seeing the way people are walking … I’m watching all these things.”
For the past 12 years, Wilkes has perfected the art of taking the same picture over and over again—except no two images are ever the same.
Sometimes Wilkes will make nearly 2,000 photographs of the same scene, from the same position, for up to 36 hours straight. For hours, he has endlessly photographed the melting arctic, tourists in an Icelandic lagoon, and flamingos in Kenya. After poring over each image, he and his team choose the moments of the day that strike them. Then they seamlessly blend them into a single composite image structured around the sunrise and sunset. He has made a collection of these works, and calls it “Day to Night.”
Wilkes concedes that this work process can be taxing: “Try watching TV for 36 hours. It's hard to do,” he says. But it’s also deeply engaging: “The fear of missing a moment is so great that it hyper focuses me.”
For the composite image of the 2021 inauguration, as with most of his Day to Night photos, Wilkes had just an instant to capture what he considers the image’s defining moments. Early in the day, while dark clouds still clogged the sky, President Donald Trump circled the U.S. Capitol Building in Marine One, one last time before departing the District of Columbia. Soon after, the wind that had battered the photographer all morning cleared the sky as the inauguration ceremony began. The visual metaphor was not lost on Wilkes.
“Sometimes it's this magical serendipity that I have no control over but I am just present for,” he says. “And then what happens is, it's like a book—it writes itself in a strange way.”
Normally, it takes Wilkes and his team about four months to sift through thousands of photographs and compile the composite. There is so much detail in every image that, despite photographing a scene for 12 to 36 hours, Wilkes still finds new gems in each frame. Once, while looking through photos of the 2013 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, Wilkes noticed a family eating Thanksgiving dinner in a window of an apartment building. The gathering made its way into the final image—just one of the many mini-scenes in a much larger composition.
For the Biden inauguration, Wilkes knew the moment called for an unprecedented turnaround. The moments that defined the story were clear in his head: Trump’s helicopter ride, the bright sky, President Joe Biden taking the oath of office. While in the car on the way back to his studio in Connecticut, Wilkes began sifting through the images. By the time he passed his hard drive off to Nina Scherenberg, who has helped Wilkes blend his photos for more than a decade, he had selected parts from 50 frames he wanted to preserve.
“I knew in my heart that this picture defines not just the moment in history, but also the fact that democracy was saved,” Wilkes says. “We did save democracy because this day happened.” Wilkes’s image shows the security fences and armed troops on Capitol Hill after the January 6 violence by armed insurrectionists. But more importantly, Wilkes says, his image shows that a mob’s bid to prevent certification of a lawful election “didn’t stop it. They tried, but they couldn’t stop it.”
Chronologically, Wilkes’s composite image ends with the National Mall’s memorial lights, which commemorate those who could not attend the ceremony due to the pandemic. “I think the hope in the photograph comes from those memorial lights, the extraordinary beams of light projected up into the heavens,” he says.
Wilkes began his Day to Night series with several odes to his hometown of New York City. Since then, he has observed and compressed memorable days around the world, from the Regata Storica in Venice, to Easter Mass at the Vatican, to the Trafalgar Square in London.
“It has this interesting documentary quality, where we see reality… But it kind of negates what we will really see if we come to that place,” explains Dr. Zora Carrier, the executive director of the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, which hosted an exhibition of Wilkes’s Day to Night series last year. “If we come to the Trafalgar Square, there is never on one side sunrise and on the other side, dark. It is his way of seeing the place. We're seeing the place in the spectrum of time.”
During last year’s “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” Commitment March in Washington, D.C., a commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Wilkes perched above the World War II Memorial for 12 hours as he watched thousands of people gather at the Lincoln Memorial to advocate for police and criminal justice reform.
“The actual heat index was well over 100 degrees,” Wilkes recalls. “It was obviously challenging for a lot of reasons, but the experience was profound... I witnessed this incredible, peaceful march. I saw all these people come together 57 years to the day that Dr. King gave the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in that physical location, in that place.”
Of course, Wilkes cannot include every person who attends an event in his final image. Hundreds of people may stand in the same spot over the course of a day but only one can occupy that space in the final composite. The constraints force the team to hand select each individual to include. In this constructed, compressed world, Wilkes tries to reflect the spirit and truth of the day.
“As a documentary photographer, I want to speak to what I witnessed,” Wilkes says. “I saw grandmothers, I saw little kids, I saw African Americans, Hispanic, white Americans, I saw everything. To me, the day was this incredible sort of influx of what we are as America today. That's what was represented in front of my lens. I felt very compelled to make sure that that visual representation was in my photograph.”
However, sometimes the spirit of the day can happen at the wrong time, in the wrong place. After the Commitment March was over and most of the crowd had left, members of the National Action Network, organizers of the march, began picking up trash around the World War II Memorial. Although Wilkes and his team were still photographing the changing sky—and would continue to do so for several more hours—images of this public service could not be included in the final composite. The lower-half of the final photograph, where the war memorial appears, was reserved for moments caught earlier in the day when the sun was high.
Even before his Day to Night series, Wilkes’s photography has focused on fleeting, disappearing subjects. In 1998, he began a five-year project on Ellis Island’s long-abandoned and crumbling medical wards. His worked helped secure $6 million from Congress to preserve the south side of the historic island.
His latest composite project for the National Geographic Society focuses on endangered animals and habitats in Canada, where he has photographed grizzly bears in British Columbia. In 2017, the society also supported a Day to Night series on bird migration around the world, from sandhill cranes in Nebraska to northern gannets in Scotland.
“As I pivoted this work into documenting social justice issues and endangered species, I focus on creating photographs that are dealing with important social issues and trying to inspire change,” he says. “And as I look at the work, I do feel that maybe, these photographs become windows. As time changes they begin to tell people 50 years from now, 100 years from now, what the human experience was.”