Incredible Day-to-Night Photo of Bears Ears National Monument Took 36 Hours to Capture

Bear Ears National Monument by Stephen Wilkes

This spectacular landscape is a symbol of the risk to some of the country's unique and irreplaceable places. One president preserved it at the urging of Native Americans who hold it sacred; another tried to open it to drilling and mining. A national monument rich with human history, it includes the Citadel, once a fortified cliff dwelling, now a popular hiking spot. Stephen Wilkes took 2,092 photographs over 36 hours and selected 44 to make this image, capturing a sunrise, a full moon, and a rare alignment of four planets. “This was to me,” he says, “as beautiful and as magnificent as any spot I've seen in the Grand Canyon.” (Photo: Stephen Wilkes, National Geographic)

For the September issue of National Geographic, photographer Stephen Wilkes traveled to some of America's most picturesque landscapes. Using his signature “day to night” photography, he captured everything from sunrise to moonrise in one frame. His images illustrate National Geographic‘s cover story on how America needs to change its habits in order to conserve nature.

One of Wilkes' most striking images, which graces the issue's cover, was taken in Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. Shot over the course of 36 hours, it required Wilkes and his team to make a strenuous one-hour hike carrying 75-pound backpacks filled with equipment. Once there, they also had to endure 50 mph winds that made it difficult to secure their equipment. But, the end result was worth it.

Wilkes used Bears Ears' famous Citadel as a center point in the image, balancing day and night on either side. A smattering of hikers is visible below, making their way toward the famous cliff dwelling. The serene atmosphere in Wilkes' photograph belies the careful research that goes into creating these images.

In the case of Bears Ears, Wilkes planned his shoot to coincide not only with a rare planetary alignment, but also on the weekend when Easter Sunday, Passover, and Ramadan coincided. This is something that only occurs every 33 years, and given the monument's significance in different Indigenous cultures, it seemed fitting.

“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,” Wilkes shares.

Bears Ears is, in some ways, symbolic of the environmental struggles currently happening in the United States. Named a national monument by President Obama in 2016, it saw its protected boundary dramatically slashed by President Trump the following year. And currently, the state of Utah is locked in a legal battle with President Biden, who is seeking to restore the monument to its original 1,351,849 acres.

The battle for America's natural resources is the focus of National Geographic‘s September issue and it's a battle that Wilkes feels is important to contribute to.

“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.”

See all four landscapes (Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Shi Shi Beach in Northwestern Washington, J Bar L Ranch in Montana, and City Park in New Orleans) that Wilkes shot for National Geographic in its September issue.

Stephen Wilkes brought his signature “day to night” photography to the cover of National Geographic‘s September issue.

September 2022 Cover of National Geographic by Stephen Wilkes

For a story about protecting America's natural resources, Wilkes photographed four landscapes, including the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.

Stephen Wilkes Photo Shoot at Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: Lenny Christopher, National Geographic

The photo shoot required him to stand in place for 36 hours.

Stephen Wilkes Photo Shoot at Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: Lenny Christopher, National Geographic

Wilkes and his crew faced a steep climb with heavy camera equipment to arrive at the shoot destination.

Stephen Wilkes Photo Shoot at Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: Lenny Christopher, National Geographic

Over the course of the shoot, they battled winds of up to 50 miles per hour.

Stephen Wilkes Photo Shoot at Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: Stephen Wilkes, National Geographic

But the crew persevered to show this picturesque landscape from sunrise to moonrise.

Stephen Wilkes Photo Shoot at Bears Ears National Monument

Photo: Ivar Bastress, National Geographic

Stephen Wilkes: Website | Facebook | Instagram

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by National Geographic.

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Stunning Day and Night Compositions by Stephen Wilkes Capture the Fleeting Passage of Time

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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