The celebrated artist talks capturing Kevin Durant, his thoughts on NFTs, and how the medium is constantly changing before our eyes.
Everyone’s concept of time is unique. As to how we experience it as a factor in our everyday lives, our mileage tends to vary. However, there’s something about looking at an image and experiencing a stylized time lapse before your eyes.
Photographer Stephen Wilkes is best known for this inventive approach, and over the last several decades, he has perfected the technique as technology has gotten better and better.
Unlike portraiture that captures a single moment, Wilkes is renowned for joining hundreds of shots together digitally to produce one cohesive scene. His long-running exhibition, aptly titled Day to Night, features landscapes captured over a day-long period, often bringing together 1,000 or more photographs to achieve the final result. For one of his latest projects, the Syracuse University alum took a similar approach and reimagined it for one of basketball’s most dynamic athletes.
From there, he stitched every image and instead of making a single photo, produced a cutting-edge clip:
Boardroom spoke with Wilkes to get an expert view on how this project took off, his thoughts on NFTs, and how photography is constantly changing before our very eyes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VINCIANE NGOMSI: Your work hasn’t always emphasized sports — what was so special about this project that drew you into that world?
STEPHEN WILKES: Well, I’ve had kind of an interesting path in terms of my career when it relates to sports. I started with Nike; it was my first big commercial client, and I photographed Michael Jordan in 1989. We did a whole series of posters, which was great. After that, I actually started to photograph athletes a lot, so I was very into photographing sports in the early part of my career and then mid-career. I eventually started a whole series on sports photography, and that led me to shooting Vince Carter on another project. It seems like every few years, I seemed to evolve into another sports project, but there is certainly a large gap as I started to become known as a fine artist.
My connection to Kevin [Durant] and Rich [Kleiman] was really through my fine art, and I’ve always been a fan of Kevin’s. After watching him play a game, we just started talking about collaborating on something. Then, COVID-19 happened and suddenly there was this unique opportunity for me to sort of capture Kevin at work. He had recently signed with the Nets and suddenly he was in my hometown, so plans started to take shape.
VN: Can you speak more about how this specific project with KD came to be?
SW: There was this unique opportunity for me to sort of witness Kevin’s comeback sequentially at home, so we had a conversation about it and Rich helped make it happen. I think for me, it was really about how could I tell the story. My work is based on time, and this was a unique opportunity where I could really study someone who’s such a remarkable athlete, but over the course of a season. So, Barclays [Center] was able to commit and give me a single spot where I could essentially photograph him from the exact same point of view.
We completed it over the course of 20 games and that allowed me to take photographs that not only captured time changing in one day, but actually over the course of an entire season, and all of these moments obviously reflect Kevin playing against every major player in the game. In trying to capture that, what I discovered really was the multitude of things Kevin does on a basketball court.
VN: From that consistent vantage point, what are the things you noticed the most about KD’s demeanor, personality, and playing style?
SW: One thing I found so interesting as I started to watch him game in and game out was the depth of focus he has on the court. I want everyone to understand that when Kevin was on the court, I never really saw anything else. In order to achieve the moments I caught, you can’t be looking at anything else. So, by really focusing on him, I’m able to capture every move that he makes, and through that observation, through studying him over the course of those 20 games, it was like watching poetry.
Another thing that struck me beyond his athleticism was Kevin’s intellect on the court. I think that unless you really watch a player, you don’t immediately pick [that] up. The way he understands exactly where to be at a certain point in the game, the way he anticipates where the ball’s going to be, or how his ability to maximize his energy in any given situation but not overexert is remarkable. So few can play 48 minutes on a court, and I’ve watched Kevin do it several times.
VN: Anyone who views this particular piece will interpret it in their own way, but are there any particular Easter eggs that you think we should be on the lookout for?
SW: I don’t like to give away the Easter eggs, but there are definitely seminal moments in there, one being his three-pointer against the Bucks. There are also very specific moments that I think a fan who knows the game and watched him during his time with the Nets can easily pinpoint. Another thing that makes the picture neat is the more you look, the more there’s to see — you notice Kevin doing an interview on the sideline, him on the bench, you see him stretching before the game. It’s like I basically created a “Where’s Waldo” of Kevin.
VN: I’d say art is entering a renaissance in the digital space, including various ways people are collecting pieces. How are you — if you are — altering the methods in which you work to fit what is changing before our eyes?
SW: Honestly, I look at all of these technological innovations as new tools. In the end, I’m a storyteller, so I want to tell stories in a way that brings people into a specific sensibility. I say often that when you see my prints in person, you notice I try to create almost a visceral experience for the viewer. It’s as if I want you to feel like you’re with me. In the arena, we’re looking at the game together, you’re witnessing this with me. I’m always trying to push my vision in terms of how I can tell this story in a different way.
I’m always interested in what’s new and I think I’m just constantly living my life with curiosity, and it’s through curiosity that I’m pushed into areas some people might consider out of their comfort zone. I’m a photographer. I’m not a technologist, nor am I a scientist. I’m not interested in that. I just want to shoot it straight.
But I’m driven by an idea of actually taking these new tools and using them in a way to push the medium outward. My heroes are Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins, and Harold Edgerton. These people took technology and figured out a new way for us to see the world. That’s something I’m very passionate about and very interested in doing. I’m just trying to tell stories, but also use technology in a way that elevates the medium and changes the way we experience things never seen before in still photography.
VN: Speaking of technology, let’s talk NFTs. How does a project like this continue the conversation surrounding the evolving role of digital art in popular culture?
SW: I think NFTs are here to stay. I believe this medium is very exciting as an artist because I know my name is permanently recorded in my art. In the conventional sense, when you’re selling a print, that print may be bought by somebody else. Next thing you know, somebody’s selling it for five times what you sold it for, but the artist never makes a dime on that.
One of the amazing things about NFTs is this ability for the artist to gain some revenue streams through secondary sales. That’s a really important thing in the art world. Being able to create something unique and then get a revenue from that over decades, you or your children can benefit from, it’s a really important thing.
The NFT space is evolving as we speak. I always say it’s reminiscent of early video games. The previous generation were the ones beginning to really embrace this concept. Their memories as a child are of Pac-Man and the visualization of art; it was kind of that campy video art. That was the first thing that started evolving, but I think now, photography’s starting to really move into that space.
I didn’t want to just create a JPEG of this project. I wanted to create a whole new way of looking at the space through a photograph, and NFTs allow you to do that.
VN: You’ve captured jaw-dropping landscapes and things that can be difficult to process, including natural disasters. Regarding this particular project, you exude so much joy talking about it, but how do you get yourself through the moments that feel more difficult?
SW: One of the things I study is creativity. Something I find interesting about the creative process is when you’ve been doing this for a while — in my case, almost five decades — at a certain point you begin to look back at your work and the pictures just speak to you. You start to think, ‘Well what was I going through at that moment that I was able to just have that happen?’ And by the same token, you remember the moments where you felt flat on your face, where you went out all day and you got nothing.
And what I’ve discovered over the years is the ability to be present, embrace my fear, and to feel somewhat uncomfortable. It allows me to work in a way that’s really powerful. I’ve become very focused, but also drop all my expectations and I just live in the moment. But I think the ability to have creative license as an artist is the most important thing. That allows you to sort of live in the moment and also take some risks, experiment, go to places maybe you weren’t thinking of going. I try to keep myself as open as I can.
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