Roaming Rome, Wylie focues on material
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
spent the better part of his second sunny day roaming Isola
Tiberie, an island in the Tiber River
by the oldest
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
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
“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
him in Italian. She invited him into the
apartment building and found a neighbor who spoke some
to help Wylie
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
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
“I even had to jog myself to remember to put the film in the camera,” he
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.
two out of 16 I take will be good,” he said. “I just never