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In the exhibition American Places William Wylie focuses on the concept of place; how we respond to the landscape, how we move from the general to the specific in our personal associations with it, and how our lives are interwoven into the histories of places. In his work over the past twenty years, Wylie has balanced a striking formal sensibility with a dedication to a documentary role for his photography. In this respect, his photographs are marked by both intensity and dispassion. He writes: “The landscape is a visual presentation of forces at work, from the biological and geological to the human. As an artist I am interested in the evocative quality of that presentation. I make photographs not only to honor what is in front of the camera but also to invoke a sense of inclusion (my own and hopefully an audience). The act of attention is a way of connecting and photography is a tool that supports our involvement with the world. “
For the two bodies of work represented in this exhibition Wylie used a landscape feature to create an itinerary by which to document the place, in both cases a pathway. One is a river, the Cache la Poudre River in northern Colorado, the other a two-lane highway, Route 36, traversing northern Kansas from border to border. By using an established geographical reference as a trajectory into the landscape Wylie accepts his route as a given. Concomitantly, these photographs document the personal experiences of the photographer. He spent four years working on each project, traveling (and in the case of the Poudre River, walking) the entire lengths of the commons. With this in mind, they can’t be viewed as only referencing the places themselves but also as locating a moment in time when a specific individual stood in front of a subject that mattered. That relationship is always paramount in Wylie’s images.
Riverwalk (1994-1998) is a collection of 49 photographs documenting the landscape surrounding the watershed along the Cache la Poudre River in Colorado. Both a Wild and Scenic River and one of the most polluted in Colorado, the place is being developed at a rapid pace. At the same time, Wylie attends to the river itself, its shifting flow and fluctuations in light, as well the manner in which it has shaped the environment through which it passes. The publication Riverwalk (UPC, 2000) won the 2000 Colorado Book Award.
Likewise, Route 36 (2004-2008) functions as both a program and a subject. Though Wylie’s images, we glimpse the Western prairie through the frame of trucking and agricultural industries. The turnouts and roadsides that draw his attention prove sparsely populated and largely neglected. His photographs are revealing not only of American spaces, but spatial practice: our production and consumption of space, our way stations and movement through it. This documentary series of photographs moves progressively westward, beginning at the Missouri River crossing, where oxbows form the platforms for the city of St. Joseph, and ending where the two lanes of Route 36 disappear into Interstate 70 at Byers, Colorado, within sight of the Rocky Mountains. These photographs document not only a geographical landscape, but a social one as well, recording a particular moment in the history of vernacular culture. Route 36 has just been released by Flood Editions.
As the poet Merrill Gilfillan has commented, “It seems continually necessary to reassert that landscape study and its reflective arts are anything but passive disciplines, that civilization in a sustaining, daily sense emerges most surely from good relations with one’s surroundings (the perfect word) and the inner landscape of possibility held in the head and heart.”
William Wylie received an MFA from The University if Michigan in 1989. He has published four books of his photographs, Riverwalk (University Press of Colorado, 2000), Stillwater (Nazraeli Press, 2002), Carrara (Center for American Places, 2009), and Route 36 (Flood Editions, 2010) all concerned with landscape and place. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography in 2005 and a Colorado Individual Artist Fellowship in 1998. His photographs and films have been shown both nationally and internationally, including A Complex Eden at The Museum of Fine Art, St. Petersburg, FL, 100 Great American Photographs at The Amon Carter Museum. Fort Worth, TX, and Forged Power at Arizona State University Art Museum. His work can be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Yale University Art Museum, among others. He lives in Charlottesville where he teaches photography at the University of Virginia.