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.