We asked photographer Stephen Wilkes to tell us about a picture that meant something to him and why. His exhibition “Day to Night” is on view at the Peter Fetterman Gallery through December 31.
When I was asked to describe a single photograph that had great personal significance, I became a bit overwhelmed, as the vast history of photography has informed so much of my life. I decided to reflect on a photograph that I made in college, an image I considered to be my first benchmark as an artist. As a young photographer, when you view the works of established photographers, their images evoke emotion, energy, and a unique point of view. A style.
Style is something all young photographers want, yet few understand what it really is. During my senior year in college in 1980, I visited a summer house that my friend had rented in upstate New York. The house had a pool, which appeared to be filled with water. But looking again, I realized it was empty, having just been painted turquoise blue. I found myself climbing down a ladder to see the pool from the inside. The color was hypnotic. I was drawn to the deep end, and there I discovered a single ladder rising out of the blue pool. At that moment I felt as if I was literally underwater, bathing in color.
I took several pictures.
The ladder had not been painted, and it showed the decay of years of neglect. A step was broken, the tops of others had been painted red, leaving only one pristine white step at the top. Clouds circled above the pool, creating a surreal juxtaposition.
Opening the box of film a few days later, and even at the small size of a 35mm slide without the aid of a loupe, the image had a unique power. When I viewed it up close, I began to feel my own presence within the frame. That was the first time I ever had that feeling. It was a defining moment, something I wanted to feel in all my pictures. That’s when I discovered what style really is. When you feel yourself within your own work, others will too.
The photograph is titled, The Deep End. Some see it as a ladder of life. For me it has been a ladder to a place as a photographer that I never stop reaching towards.