The very idea of a photograph is that it captures a single moment. One click of the shutter renders the briefest sliver of time permanent. Everything before and everything after might as well not have happened at all.
Stephen Wilkes is not about that single moment, not exactly. He is, rather, a collector of moments, staking out a location until he has hoovered up enough of them to tell the story of a single place. At first, the panoramas in Day to Night can throw you, as if your brain briefly went off-kilter. Is that a storm closing in fast? Or an eclipse hovering just below the clouds? The reality is altogether more ordinary and yet somehow more striking: day and night—together. These are not the briefest of moments. They are many moments, as many as possible, collapsed and fused into one.
The locations are often familiar. Wilkes says he’s drawn to places that are part of our collective memory, iconic and instantly recognizable, like Times Square and the Washington Mall. It also helps if he can get a cherry picker there.
For the shoots, Wilkes wakes before dawn and often uses a crane to get at least 50 ft. (15 m) above his subjects. He takes the first pictures by daybreak. He’ll have shot 1,200 to 1,500 more by the time he wraps up 12 to 15 hours later. About 50 make it into the final photograph, an editing process that can take months. While he’s shooting, there are no bathroom breaks. Meals, if he decides to eat at all, are brought up in a bucket. And for every picture he takes, he has to capture the same space without anyone in it. That vacant shot becomes what Wilkes calls “the naked plate” on which he overlays details from all the other images. “It’s like a Rubik’s Cube in real time in my brain,” Wilkes says.
Wilkes got the idea of overlapping dozens of images of one location over an extended period from two earlier projects: a five-year photographic study of Ellis Island’s empty rooms and a LIFE magazine shoot on the set of the 1996 movie Romeo + Juliet. Wilkes had been studying artist David Hockney, who frequently shot 250 images of a single scene, then physically pasted them together to create a sense of bending time. On set, Wilkes decided to shoot the film’s stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, embracing, then moved the camera to capture a reflection of them kissing seconds later. The finished composite image shows both contrasting images at once.
For Day to Night, Wilkes tries to make mental notes of the ever shifting landscape of random events unfolding below him. More often than not, they yield surprises. During his Times Square shoot, a bomb scare led the NYPD to clear the entire area in minutes—turning one of the busiest places on earth into a ghost town. As he shot the Santa Monica Pier, a man was handcuffed against a police car, an image that Wilkes later neatly juxtaposed next to kids running with balloons.
Glimpses into cordoned-off worlds are a signature, like his image of New York City’s keyed-entry Gramercy Park or the rabbinical blessings taking place at the Western Wall during Sukkoth. These peeks into the private take place alongside the decidedly public, as in the image of Wrigley Field during a Chicago Cubs day-night doubleheader, which lets you see the action inside the stadium as the regular business of city life goes on just outside. Wilkes wanted to shoot the iconic stadium before next year’s renovations forever alter it.
The pictures have become wildly popular online, allowing Wilkes to expand the series around the world. He recently shot Shanghai, Paris and London, and this month he’ll photograph the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
They’re all prominent settings, but the photos are as much about who is in them as where they are taken. It’s the woman in Coney Island going out early in the morning for a walk along on the beach or the man in the middle of the night smoking a cigarette in New York’s Union Square—the thousands of everyday routines, happening side by side, that make Wilkes’ work so intriguing. Little instances, taken out of isolation and transformed by bumping against one another.
“Those things touch people because it grounds them in terms of who they are and what they’ve done in their lives,” Wilkes says. People see themselves in that moment, right next to everyone else and every other sliver of time.
Stephen Wilkes is a fine-art and commercial photographer based in New York. Wilkes was awarded the Photo District News Award of Excellence in 2011 and 2012. He is represented by Peter Fetterman Gallery in Los Angeles, Monroe Gallery in Santa Fe and Tulla Booth Gallery in Sag Harbor.
Josh Sanburn is a writer/reporter for TIME in New York. Follow him on Twitter @joshsanburn.