With the support of a Yale University Art Gallery artist residency, beginning in 2012 William Wylie made three tips to Italy’s Amalfi Coast to photograph Pompeii, the Roman city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The layers of ash and lava killed Pompeii’s citizens, but also preserved portions of the city, which was rediscovered and excavated by later generations. “The site of Pompeii functions much like a photograph, by freezing an instant from the past and carrying a representation of it into the present,” Wylie notes in the introduction to Pompeii Archive, the book of the black-and-white photographs he made of the ancient ruins.
Wylie’s images show the marble columns and brick façades of partially destroyed buildings; the remnants of murals, sculptures and other artworks; the preserved bodies and bones of Pompeii’s residents; and artifacts unearthed as excavation and preservation of the site has continued. Wylie became interested in Pompeii in part through Giorgio Sommer, a nineteenth century photographer who documented the ruins. Wylie, who has collected Sommer’s prints, is particularly interested in the way Sommer “flattened the picture plain” in his images. The effect “transformed ruined walls and columns into archaeological layers, the traces and imprints of multiple pasts.” Sommer, Wylie explains in the book, primarily made photographs for tourists. “His most frequently reproduced images conjured the glory of the ruins, the majesty and grandeur of a lost moment in time,” Wylie writes. Rather than evoking the glory of the ruins or “freezing an instant from the past,” Wylie wanted to breathe new life into the ancient city. “In the specificity and placement of shadows and light, my photographs of Pompeii re-animate the city’s present by displaying rather than burying or stopping the past.”
Wylie’s work is also being exhibited at Yale Art Gallery in a show that includes artifacts and other objects from the gallery’s collection; and work from photographer An-My Lê, who photographed in Pompeii while participating in the same residency in 2016. Lê contributed an artist’s book to the exhibition that includes photographs of a collection of erotic art discovered at Pompeii, and which is now housed at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.
Pompeii: Photographs and Fragments
Through August 19, 2018
Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel Street
New Haven, CT 06510