National Geographic Explorer Stephen Wilkes’s decade-long project, Day to Night, requires tenacity. First he has to reach a site, often a challenge, and then he has to stay behind the camera for hours—sometimes more than a full day—all to capture thousands of frames for a single composite image showing time’s march across a landscape. For the cover photo of the September issue, he hiked through shin-deep mud to reach a remote beach in Washington State while being stalked by a cougar.
We spoke to the photographer about how he managed to illustrate “America the Beautiful” in just four stunning landscapes.
(The epic COVID-19 memorial on the National Mall, in one stunning photo.)
What’s the story behind the cover?
Over the last 12 years, Wilkes has photographed his Day to Night series, which has expanded from documenting cities to landscapes throughout America and ultimately the world. He has also become more drawn to capturing social and environmental issues.
The cover story highlights the environment of Bears Ears in Utah, J Bar L Ranch in Montana, Shi Shi Beach in Washington State, and New Orleans’ City Park in breathtaking scope. The distinct locations featured in the article each have a compelling history. Wilkes noted that in recent years Bears Ears has been at the center of the debate over which lands need to be protected.
Capturing a landscape over time in a single composite image is challenging for a number of reasons, Wilkes says. For this project, some sites were remote and required a strenuous hike or even camping, and of course, weather played a key role as well.
“There’s this intersection where I spend anywhere from 24 to 36 hours photographing from a single point of view. My camera is in a fixed position,” he says. “Whether it's rain or wind, so many variables can change what I see in front of me.”
He created the cover image from 44 of the 2,092 frames captured during a 36-hour period at Bears Ears.
Wilkes photographed Bears Ears during a rare planetary alignment and on the same weekend as Easter Sunday, Passover, and Ramadan—which typically coincide only once every 33 years.
“It was a celestial experience but also a spiritual connection that makes you think back to earlier civilizations and, in particular, Indigenous culture—how it embraced what [people] were seeing in the stars and how that translated into their daily lives.”
Photographing the four locations required enduring a four-hour hike through a rainforest in deep mud with equipment, balancing on a 20-foot-high rock for about 18 hours, and even battling extremely strong winds and tides. At Shi Shi Beach nature tossed him another curveball.
“Leaving Shi Shi, we found out we were being tracked by a cougar,” he says. And though the team made it back unscathed, he adds, “There’s nothing like working through a shin-deep mud trail knowing a cougar is tracking you—definitely exciting and memorable.”
In his images Wilkes hopes readers will feel a sense of beauty and awe and perhaps be motivated to get more involved to protect these and other places.
“Science is becoming a challenging area—people don’t believe the data,” he says. “As an artist, it’s on us how well we tell the story and create a certain level of emotion that touches people, and that connection is what drives action.”
(How one image captures 21 hours of a volcanic eruption.)
Hikers trek to the Citadel in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, an American treasure that’s been politically contested. The photograph is a composite of 44 images taken over a period of 36 hours.
What’s featured on the cover?
When Wilkes first scouted sites for “America the Beautiful,” he saw a stunning photo taken by Mason Cummings of the Citadel in Bears Ears, the park’s main landmark, which holds the remnants of Anasazi cliff dwellings. Wilkes immediately knew the unique physical feature, shaped into a sort of bridge, would be conducive to the day-to-night treatment.
The protection status of Bear’s Ears has teetered for years. Former president Barack Obama designated it a national monument in 2016 for its sacred and historical status among Native Americans; then president Donald Trump reversed the order a year later to open up the park to mining. Before much damage could be done to the habitat and monument, President Joe Biden restored protections in 2021, after the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe all pushed for action.
“I am so thankful that it was reversed,” Wilkes says. “Because when you set foot on this spot that I was in … you literally have history under your feet.”
He supports preserving natural habitats not only for wildlife but also because of their historical significance—especially in the case of Bears Ears. The park is rich with artifacts and structures that have been revealed over the years as the elements scoured the landscape.
“Suddenly you're seeing all these incredible things that are centuries old,” Wilkes says.
His goal of capturing the full moon and planetary alignment is ultimately connected to Indigenous cultures since some used the stars in navigation and the moon to track the year. To plan for photographing the site during a full moon—an important event in Native culture—Wilkes began tracking moon phases. Ultimately, he captured Bears Ears in the middle of April with both the sunrise and moonrise.
He believes the site is underappreciated because of its proximity to another nationally beloved park: the Grand Canyon. Bears Ears is just as magnificent and should be just as protected, he says.
What’s next for Stephen Wilkes?
Wilkes plans to document endangered species in Canada and the great caribou migration in Yukon.
While in Canada, he also plans to photograph wood bison and grizzly bears in a day-to-night scenario—and even beluga whales at some point, continuing his work highlighting animals and habitats affected by climate change.
“As a storyteller, a documentarian, and an artist, my job is to try to put myself out there and witness these changes, and somehow create and encapsulate that into the work and the story that I'm telling,” says Wilkes.
(The inauguration, from sunrise to sunset, captured in one striking picture.)