April 9-22, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 7
Back Issues
Pituitary Center brings life-changing treatment to thousands
Student health insurance plan
Headlines @ U.Va.
U.Va. marks the 261st birthday of its founder — Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals in Architecture an Law
Aerospace institute becoming a reality in Hampton
Online applications aid admissions process
Fatton: No ray of hope for native Haiti
Grossman enters new world of responsibility
Women’s Center to honor Arizona’s trailblazing Gov. Janet Napolitano
Artist explores DNA and difference in
‘ Jefferson Suites’
Nobel Prize-winning poet
Seamus Heaney to read April 19
Roaming Rome, Wylie focuses on material and light
Roaming Rome, Wylie focues on material and light
William Wylie sets up to photograph the oldest surviving Roman pedestrian bridge.
Photo by Jane Ford
William Wylie sets up to photograph the oldest surviving Roman pedestrian bridge.

By Jane Ford

ROME — It is a picture-perfect cloudless March day in Rome— a city of familiar postcard sights reproduced in history and art books, travel brochures, advertising and movies.

William Wylie, assistant professor of photography in U.Va.’s McIntire Department of Art, is himself a sight, perhaps from another century, as he walks along the streets with his large-format camera and tripod swung over his shoulder. Others often stop to take his photo with their modern pocket-sized digital cameras.

Wylie sets up the camera in a narrow street at the side of the Pantheon, intrigued by the way the light hits the stone columns of the portico. He sticks his head under the drape and adjusts the camera. In the end he decides he cannot make the picture he wants from that location, so he moves on.

Wylie’s not interested in the postcard image. He’s in search of just the right light and subject matter, often seeking out the overlap of ancient and modern. He carries only 16 8-by-10 negatives with him and makes critical decisions about when to snap the shutter.

Wylie totes almost 70 pounds of equipment. His more-than-50-year-old Deardorf & Sons view camera, with a lens that Wylie says is much older, can be folded up and tucked into his backpack.

“The photographers on early expeditions out West took cameras like this, but bigger, with 20x40 negatives,” he said.

Wylie prizes the camera because of the image clarity and sharpness it produces. With the camera, he’s able to correct linear perspective and distortions in both the horizontal and film plane — to accurately render three-dimensional objects on the two-dimensional plane of the film. Uncorrected, the distortions produce a keystone effect that creates an image in which the top of the photograph appears smaller than the bottom.

Wylie is in Rome on a three-week fellowship, an exchange between U.Va.’s College of Arts & Sciences and the Third University of Rome. What began as an informal visiting scholar exchange became “a regular competition in 1990,” said John F. Miller, professor of classics and chairman of the Rome exchange committee. U.Va. scholars in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Slavic languages, politics, physics, classics and the arts have benefited from the many research archives in Rome during their fellowships.

“Scholars visiting U.Va. benefit from the materials in the library’s special collections. Many are specialists in American studies, a strength of the University and the library,” Miller said.

The extensive library at the American Academy in Rome, where Wylie is staying, provides him with background research, but it’s the investigation of light on the buildings, statues and street life that is the subject of his work. His long-time interest in photographing the marble quarries at Cararra, Italy, is the jumping off point for his Roman exploration.

For centuries, marble has been the choice of the artists and architects working in Rome. Michelangelo favored the pureness of the white Cararra marble for his sculptures, including the Pieta in St. Peter’s at the Vatican. In his designs for the facades of the palaces and the Piazza Campidoglio on the summit of the Capitoline Hill, Michelangelo chose banded and veined travertine marble.

Wylie’s own interest in stone is closely linked to his 25 years as a rock climber in the mountains of Colorado and California. He contemplated becoming a geologist before he discovered his love of photography. “I’m interested in stone as a material,” Wylie said.

On the first sunny day, Wylie traveled to the travertine quarries outside Tivoli, near Rome. He is attracted to the play of light on the geometric structure — both of the blocks that are removed and what is left behind.
“ The fellowship is a great opportunity to expand on my work in Cararra and the travertine quarries but also to make a whole new set of pictures I could not have thought of before,” Wylie said.

The stone buildings, statues and life in the streets of Rome have
allowed him to explore and build on other themes in his work.

Wylie spent the better part of his second sunny day roaming Isola Tiberie, an island in the Tiber River accessed by the oldest surviving Roman pedestrian bridge. The small island, home to a small hospital and church, was formerly encircled with a facing of travertine marble in the shape of a ship. Today only a remnant of the maidenhead remains and the area close to water level is a park, paved in stone. Wylie stopped to photograph people leaning against the base of the ancient bridge’s arches soaking up the warm, late winter sun; the roots of a sycamore tree that had grown through the stone planter at the base; and the curve of the Tiber’s embankment. In each, stone and light are the main focus of the composition.

While in Rome, Wylie is also exploring other themes that run through his work — abandoned industrial sites and the geography of scars from both natural and human disasters.

When he picked up his grant money at a branch office of the Bank of Rome, he discovered a large gas works behind a wall across the street.
“It was an opportunity that just presented itself,” Wylie said.

As he finished what he thought would be the only photograph he would be able to take, a woman in the first-floor apartment across the street called to him in Italian. She invited him into the apartment building and found a neighbor who spoke some English to help Wylie gain access to the roof. The neighbor asked the building superintendent who would not grant permission until Wylie said, “Say I am an artist.”

With those words the small door to the roof was opened. “It was a moment that took my breath away,” Wylie said.

The incredible vantage point looked over the one large gas tank, which sat to the side, and three smaller tanks that were grouped together.
While setting up his equipment, Wylie said he told himself, “I have to make a great negative here.”

He remembered what his professor had said to him when he was a student about slowing down, taking his time and thinking it through.

“I even had to jog myself to remember to put the film in the camera,” he said.

Wylie won’t know if he captured the image that took his breath away until he develops and prints the negatives when he returns to Charlottesville.

“Maybe two out of 16 I take will be good,” he said. “I just never know.”


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