Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:
August 3, 2010 — A sense of place. That's what William Wylie, University of Virginia studio art associate professor and photographer, says his work is about. In his new book of collected photographs, that place is Kansas – specifically along Route 36, which is also the title of his new book, "Route 36," published in May.
Though his work falls under the genre of landscape photography, Wylie feels the term too narrowly describes what he does. "When I think of the term 'landscape,' I think of a general view, something passive that sits out in front of us," he said. "I'm really interested in specific activities and how we move through a space. I'm drawn to the specifics of a place."
Wylie aims to make a picture that will echo the evocative quality of the place itself. He works to create "more of a motion of zooming in than stepping back. It's the individual bricks in the buildings. It's the edge of a curve. It's that broken branch on a tree" that draws him in, he said.
Wylie was steeped in the history and geography of Kansas long before he started "Route 36."
While living on the western edge of the plains in Colorado – prior to coming to U.Va. to teach in 2000 – he read William Least Heat-Moon's book "PrairyErth," which introduced him to the high prairie in Chase County, Kan.. He then explored Kansas in person and through the works of other Kansas writers.
"I just fell in love with Kansas," he said. "I did everything Kansas I could outside of making photographs, until this project came along."
The "Route 36" project was happenstance. Wylie was visiting Colorado while on a sabbatical in 2004 when a poet friend suggested he travel Route 36 on his return to Virginia.
Route 36 traverses Kansas parallel to Interstate 70. The two roads are not far apart geographically, but worlds apart in experience.
While cars zoom along on the four-lane interstate, Route 36 runs right through the towns that dot the landscape. Wylie encountered communities where time seemed to have stopped, complete with old movie theaters, small cafes and beautiful tall silos surrounded by miles of open prairie space.
There he found a landscape that spoke to his sense of place.
"I ended up spending three days just traversing Kansas on that first trip because it was just so gorgeous out there in October," he said. "There I was, and I was confronted with this incredible light and I had a camera in my hand. It made perfect sense to me to photograph it."
On that initial trip, he shot only about a dozen rolls of film using his medium-format camera. He wanted to move through the landscape more easily without being encumbered by the tripod and other equipment required when using his favored large-format, 8-by-10 view camera.
As he photographed, he was not thinking about a book or exhibit. He was just responding to the place and the desire to make an interesting image.
"I thought I had some great pictures, but really felt I would never do anything with them," Wylie said.
Shortly afterward, Flood Editions approached Wylie about publishing a book. At the time he was engrossed in another book project and frankly, he said, he didn't see a book developing from his Kansas experiences.
Wylie eventually shared some of the Route 36 pictures with the publisher. Flood Editions primarily publishes poetry books and saw a poetic quality in Wylie's work. After reading some of Flood's poetry publications, Wylie realized they shared similar artistic sensibilities.
Wylie returned to Kansas over the next four years, photographing and re-photographing the natural beauty and stillness he found there.
"Route 36" features 54 black-and-white photographs – his primary medium. "I don't think these images would have the same sense of space and light in them if they were color," he said. "The blue of the sky or the green of the trees could have been distracting from the quietude and austerity I wanted from the pictures.
"The book ends up being about how a simple thing or undemanding moment ends up being something important – a lone building out in a open landscape or a couple of ancient trees braced against the sky.
"The space of the plains was always a fantastic experience for me," said Wylie, who grew up in Chicago. "When I got there, I really felt at home. I just love the space and quality of light out there."
In his first two books Wylie responded to a river, the Cache la Poudre. One book is documentary and the other he describes as "more abstract and experiential."
"Carrara," his third book, grew out of his immersion in the life of the famed Italian marble quarry. He spent seven years wandering Carrara with his large-format camera. He ate lunch with the workers, hung out with them in town and learned about the workings of the machinery they used to quarry the stone.
"All my work is about places … how they function and what they are," Wylie said.
"What's so great about photography to me is you are able to reference your own experience, your own emotional and intellectual response to the world," he said. "You construct an image, but it's also a display of the amazing and terrifying world in front of you."