Pompeii Time

An interview with photographer William Wylie
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
April 17, 2019 Updated: April 17, 2019

At first glance, the archaeological site of Pompeii seems frozen just moments after Mount Vesuvius erupted. Yet time never stands still.

In the exhibition “Pompeii Archive: Photographs by William Wylie”  at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia, renowned American photographer William Wylie’s poignant shots reflect the ancient city of Pompeii as a living landscape rather than a historic relic. It’s a landscape juxtaposed between past and present, decay and preservation, and absence and presence.

William Wylie
William Wylie in the Forum at Pompeii in 2017, with his Deardorff 8 X 10 inches view camera. This camera is similar to the type of equipment that was used by 19th-century photographers like Giorgio Sommer. The large format negative it produces is capable of great clarity and subtlety. (Grace Hale)

Wylie’s photographs are on display until June 9, 2019, and are exhibited with a selection of images by 19th-century German photographer Giorgio Sommer (18341914) from Wylie’s personal collection. Sommer documented the excavation of the Pompeii site in the mid-19th century, and it’s Sommer’s work that inspired Wylie to photograph Pompeii.

Man at photo exhibition
William Wylie at his “Pompeii Archive: Photographs by William Wylie” exhibition at the Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia. (Riley Walsh/The Cavalier Daily)

Wylie’s photographs and short films have been exhibited widely in the United States and internationally. His work can be found in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and more.

William Wylie Photographer
Photographer William Wylie on Mount Vesuvius in 2015. (William Wylie)

He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Virginia Museum of Fine Art Professional Fellowship, and Yale University’s Doran Artist in Residence Fellowship at the Sol and Carol LeWitt estate in Praiano, Italy.

He has published five books of his work, most recently “Pompeii Archive,” published in 2018 by Yale University Press.

Wylie lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and kindly took time away from teaching photography and his work as director of the Studio Art Department at the University of Virginia to share by email his creative process, and how he sees Pompeii both through the camera lens and through time. And essentially, what Pompeii means to him.

The Epoch Times: What inspired you to photograph Pompeii?
William Wylie: For over 30 years, my photography has focused on how history and culture are revealed in the landscape. Pompeii had been an interest for a long time due to circumstance: Basically, it was an ancient city and culture, stopped and preserved,  so to speak, by a cataclysmic event.

This situation created something very much like a photograph, in that the city was frozen in time. I loved that concept.

Then, I discovered Giorgio Sommer’s photographs from the 19th century. After that, I needed to go myself and see what I could do there as an artist.

Pompeii Italian Ruins
“Entrata della casa del balcone, Pompeii” circa 1860-90, by Giorgio Sommer. Albumen print. (Courtesy of William Wylie)

The Epoch Times: How did Giorgio Sommer’s photographs influence your approach to photographing Pompeii?

Mr. Wylie: For starters, I was intrigued by the way Sommer seemed to flatten space in his albumen prints, turning three-dimensional space into a collage-like representation of two dimensions.

The materials of the site—columns, walls, doorways, and so on—definitely lent themselves to this, but he seemed to have an eye for enhancing the idea of the archaeological, of strata and layering, through his photographs.

At first, I was thinking I would pursue a sort of re-photographic project, visiting the exact same sites 150 years after he did and making new photographs. But I quickly realized that there was more interesting work to do there than simply looking for change.

The project continued to embrace Sommer’s work as a reference, but the physical site of Pompeii became the true subject of my work.

The Epoch Times: Why did you decide to shoot in black and white?
Mr. Wylie: I work mainly in black and white. I love the graphic way it denotes tonality and texture, and I also prefer the “space” it creates between the subject and viewer. It is a very subtle layer of abstraction that can work to help identify the photograph as a representation, as an art object.

Ruins Pompeii William Wylie
“Room 9, House of the Ceii (I.6.15), Pompeii,” 2015, by William Wylie. (William Wylie)

The Epoch Times: What were the challenges of photographing Pompeii’s iconic architecture?
Mr. Wylie: All the architecture, with the exception of the amphitheater, is a single story, and it mostly followed a prescribed plan. One challenge was how to keep making new interesting photographs.

I worked over a five-year period, and one key was that each time I arrived, after the first few days, I would have exhausted my sensibilities with the iconic, and I could begin to see things afresh.

William Wylie Pompeii
“Amphitheater (II.6), Pompeii,” 2013, by William Wylie. (William Wylie)
Pompeii ruins
“Looking east, Amphitheater (II.6), Pompeii,” 2015, by William Wylie. (William Wylie)

The Epoch Times: Can you please tell us a little about some of the shots you took?
Mr. Wylie: “Room G, House of the Golden Cupids (VI.16.7),” 2015: This home was among the more sumptuous in the ancient city, belonging to the Poppei family. It is named for the gold-leaf cupids depicted among its many frescoes.

Pompeii room
“Room G, House of the Golden Cupids (VI.16.7), Pompeii,” 2015, by William Wylie. (William Wylie)

Sometimes, in the right light, the daily opulence of ancient Pompeii just comes to life.

This beautiful floor mosaic and the rich fresco paintings on the walls of the room were protected by a new roof. The interior darkness created by the angle of the afternoon sunlight created a sense of mystery and lived experience. The fresco represents a transaction of some sort. It’s like a dark memory. Whatever is going on, with the crumbling plaster and empty space of the contemporary room, it doesn’t feel like it is going to end well.

“Sanctuary of Apollo (VII.7.32),” 2013: It’s an old idea, but you cannot escape the importance of time, the precise moment, and being in the right place in photography.

Apollo Pompeii
“Sanctuary of Apollo (VIII.7.32), Pompeii” 2013, by William Wylie. Archival pigment print. 37 inches by 45 inches. (William Wylie)

I knew the photographs made in the sanctuary in the 19th century by Giorgio Sommer. I likely stood on the exact spot he had when I made this image because there are versions in his oeuvre that are very close. But the statue of Apollo was not present in Sommer’s views. It was only later that the scattered fragments of the original bronze statue were assembled and determined to have been located on that pedestal.

I was surrounded by the ruins of the ancient world and was looking at an attempt to reconstruct at least part of what had been lost, and yet I was also thinking of a specific 19th-century image of that place. Then, I noticed the intensity of the light and that simple shadow projected on the column base, and it locked me into the present moment in a way few photographic experiences have for me.

It was things like this that pushed the conceptual basis of the project toward a recognition of the ongoing moment of Pompeii. It’s not a city of the past, but one very much in the present, as an archive.

“Basilica (VIII.1),” 2013: This photo uses the space-flattening technique that I see in Sommer’s work, with a layered composition showing Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii’s Basilica, and the glassy plane of floodwater that had invaded the site the day I took the photo.

Basilica Pompeii
“Basilica, (VIII.1) Pompeii,” 2013, by William Wylie. (William Wylie)

Vesuvius is always a looming presence above the city, a constant reminder to the visitor why these ruins exist.

In this photograph, the mountain is squeezed into the flatness of the scene, which is further enhanced by the columns embedded in the wall like a collage, which is further activated by the reflections in the flooded space of the Basilica, doubling the foreground (but not the volcano) across the picture-plane reflection.

I was also very conscious of that 20th-century drain in the foreground: one more aspect of the site as a contemporary place, continuing to change and evolve as needed.

William Wylie Pompeii
Walls (Pompeian building), Pompeii,” 2013, by William Wylie. (William Wylie)

The Epoch Times: What impression did Pompeii leave on you personally?
Mr. Wylie: One surprising impression Pompeii had on me was that it is not the static frozen place of our imagination, but a site that continues to keep pace with time; that entropy is on display. I refer to this in the introduction of my Yale book, but Pompeii continues to be both uncovered and to fall into ruin. This is happening because it is exposed. Human use, pollution, and natural phenomena continue to leave traces on the site.

“Pompeii Archive: Photographs by William Wylie” is at The Fralin Museum of Art at the University of Virginia through June 9, 2019. To find out more visit UVAFralinArtMuseum.virginia.edu

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.