Still Images in Great Advertising- Stephen Wilkes

Still Images In Great Advertising, is a column where Suzanne Sease discovers great advertising images and then speaks with the photographers about it.

I have been in this business for many years and I been familiar with Stephen Wilkes for years, okay decades.  And I have had the pleasure of working with the agents of Bernstein & Andriulli on many assignments when I was with Martin Agency and Kaplan-Thaler.  Stephen is known for his incredible landscape work. I can think of so many campaigns he won many accolades for his special signature style.

Suzanne:  This campaign is so perfect for you and allowed you to create graphic images and more conventional images.  When I see the editorial work from Fortune, I wonder if this campaign influenced the work for this campaign or vice versa?

Stephen: This campaign was an extraordinary experience on many levels. First and foremost I was able to collaborate with a super talented creative team at Ogilvy, who allowed me to express my vision through their concepts. I was fortunate enough to be brought in to the project early, enabling me to be part of the conceptual process. We were all on the same page from the very beginning. In order to bring a campaign like this to life you need a client who is willing to trust the creative team. Our client at SAP created an atmosphere that truly inspired great work.

The breadth and scale of these images was inspired by my “Day to Night” series. I began exploring the concept of making wide epic scale images in my China work done in 2005. I combined my love of powerful graphic images that captured the scope of China with a sense of humanity. Editorial projects followed, shooting a major story on the architecture in Beijing during the Olympics for Vanity Fair, and then I took this concept into interior spaces with the editorial work I did for Fortune. “The Big Picture”, section of the magazine has been a wonderful showcase, allowing me to continue to explore my fascination with scale. The Walmart image that I created for Fortune has certainly inspired other projects.

Suzanne:  Please tell me about your Ellis Island work?  This work speaks volumes about life that has been “left behind” and we can picture our ancestors walking those halls.  You did this project in 1999 but it still is important today especially with the current NBC show with Ancestry.com “Who Do You Think You Are”.  Maybe this body of work was the inspiration?

Stephen: The passing of time has always been a theme in much of my work. I’ve always been fascinated by history and forgotten places. What I discovered through my work on Ellis was that the documentary photograph could inspire change. The work became a benchmark for the type of photography I wanted to explore. I believe it was a unique time, as large format color documentary work was not yet being fully embraced as art. Ellis sort of redefined that concept. Using the power of color, texture and light, you can’t help but be drawn into these rooms. But the real subtext to all my Ellis Island images was the palpable sense of humanity that I felt within these empty spaces. In regard to Ancestry.com‘s “Who Do You Think You Are”, I believe the core magic of Ellis Island is that there’s a piece of it in all of us. All of our collective DNA has some trace of that island in it. Anything that brings attention to the story of immigration and in particular bringing attention to saving the south side of Ellis Island, I’m thrilled about. Bringing focus to the “forgotten side” was the essence of my work. I hope “Who Do You Think You Are” inspires people to support organizations like “Save Ellis Island” so that the history of the island can continue to inspire future generations.

Suzanne: Please tell us your secrets.  How do you combine several decades with fine art and commercial work?

Stephen: I’ll let you in on the secret, its been passed on to me by several extraordinary photographers. PASSION & HARD WORK. Equal parts of both, that’s it! Talent is just 5% of the equation. My philosophy has always been that if I’m feeling comfortable, I’m DEFINITELY not working hard enough. I’ve been fortunate to have a symbiotic relationship with both worlds. I’ve found that when I do my own work, it’s always about what’s in my heart and soul. As a result the work is pure and original. When you create work that’s personal, it can inspire ideas. When I’m hired to execute a commercial campaign I think about what work attracted my clients to me. Its almost always derivative of something I’ve photographed for myself. I bring the same passion, energy and attention to detail to both arenas. I’ve always lived by the motto “you’re only as good as your last shot”.

Suzanne: What advice can you give to the photographer just started out?  How has this business changed?

Stephen: Young photographers enter an industry that’s going through a tectonic shift. My advice to a developing photographer would be; shoot what you LOVE to photograph, not the images you think will get you work. It’s only through developing a personal vision that enables you to find a singular voice within this extraordinarily crowded field. Innovate and embrace change, don’t get to comfortable, and focus on competing with yourself and no one else. Gain your inspiration by doing the work.

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Stephen Wilkes has been widely recognized for his fine art and commercial photography. Wilkes has won numerous awards and honors, and continues to exhibit his work in both galleries and museums. He is represented by Peter Fetterman Gallery, Los Angeles, and The Monroe Gallery of Photography, Santa Fe.

APE contributor Suzanne Sease currently works as a consultant for photographers and illustrators around the world. She has been involved in the photography and illustration industry since the mid 80s, after founding the art buying department at The Martin Agency then working for Kaplan-Thaler, Capital One, Best Buy and numerous smaller agencies and companies..

Suzanne Sease

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. andy mccallie

    “Innovate and embrace change, don’t get to comfortable, and focus on competing with yourself and no one else. Gain your inspiration by doing the work.”

    Excellent words of advice. I’m just starting out and reading thoughts like this are incredibly helpful. Thank you!

  2. “My advice to a developing photographer would be; shoot what you LOVE to photograph, not the images you think will get you work. It’s only through developing a personal vision that enables you to find a singular voice within this extraordinarily crowded field.”

    This advice is something that all developing photographers need to hear. Thank you for your great advice.