Stephen Wilkes: Photography is dead? Hogwash.

November 16, 2015 | Source: Monroe Gallery of Photography

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Corridor 9, Island 3
  Corridor # 9, Island 3, Ellis Island, 1998,
                             (Archival Digital Type‑C print. Courtesy the artist)
The only obvious hint that it's a composite image, other than the weird dichotomy of light and dark, are the differing views of the president shown on huge video screens at the side of the Mall.
"Day to Night is almost a synthesis of all the things that I love about the medium of photography. . .  In a way I'm putting a face on time," Wilkes says, and then talks of how we remember, together, a time that's passed. "I'm very interested in the idea of what our collective memory is, as a species."
I've already gone well over my allotted time for our interview — usually 20 minutes or so — but Wilkes, after two decades of work, remains infectiously enthusiastic.
He describes at length his experiences while photographing abandoned, decaying structures at Ellis Island in New York harbour, once the arrival point for millions of immigrants to the U.S., and at the Bethlehem Steel plant.
"There was a palpable sense of humanity in these historic places that, in a way, I never really understood or realized you could really capture," he says.  "I think the greatest rewards have been when people see these multiple bodies of work that I've done and they say to me, 'I can feel my ancestors in your pictures. I can feel the people in your photographs.'"
He talks passionately of photographing the effects of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill on New Orleans, and of shooting nudes for the first time, in a remarkable series, after 9/11"Our lives were turned upside down. I felt like I wanted to go back and think about what the creation was like."
He recounts going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, at age 14, and being deeply influenced by a Bruegel the Elder painting, the Harvesters. "I remember walking up to it and looking closely at these men in the field, and it was almost as if I could feel the sweat on their brow."
Wilkes had been taking photographs for two years at that point, and says "nothing ever made me feel like that. I loved the idea of capturing a moment on film."
Decades later, his belief in photography  as an catalyst for change is undiminished.
"I find that by creating images that have an inherent beauty, people will look at them for just a second, and if I get you for just a second, then I think I can make you think a little deeper about what I'm showing you." And, emphatically, "The power of the single image is the way."
As for the photography-is-dead crowd, let them be damned.
When & where: 6 p.m., Nov. 19 at the National Gallery. Tickets, free.

Tags: Stephen Wilkes Day to Night National Gallery of Canada digital photography Ellis Island National Geographic remnants