HOTSEAT- Shooting gallery: Wylie's photography rocks the house

Photographer William Wylie bounds through a whirlwind tour of his ongoing house renovations— excitedly pointing out the staircase he and his wife recently built and explaining yet-to-be-realized plans for the dining room– then heads upstairs to open drawer after drawer of his butterfly collection. He tenderly picks up a large Central American Owl Butterfly with luminous blue wings, turning it over to reveal a startling brown underside resembling owls' eyes.

He smiles with appreciation. Illuminating unnoticed details and visually transforming natural objects into something evocative are two aspects of Wylie's own aesthetic. 

The 49-year-old UVA art prof's latest work conveys the history and landscape of Carrara, Italy in black-and-white portraits of excised marble blocks ("Rock of Ages," October 12). A prestigious 2005 Guggenheim Fellowship supported the five-year project's completion.

Wylie has come a long way from sleeping in the back of a VW Rabbit. In the mid-1970s, after finishing high school, he abandoned his native Chicago to pursue a Western life, living out of his car and roughnecking in Wyoming's oil fields. "That was a great job," Wylie says, "because I could work for two months, make a big paycheck, then go live in Yosemite or take some great trip and climb or ski."

He carried a camera on his rugged adventures but never considered photography as a career until he began selling images to magazines like Outside and Climbing. At that point, he recalls, "I decided that the real money– and chicks!– was in fashion photography." 

He was preparing to return to Chicago when he met artist Kay Jenkins, then a student at Colorado State University, who became his wife. She mentioned that CSU offered a photography course, and an in-love Wylie stayed to take it. He says the class opened his eyes to photography's potential: "I was hooked, didn't need the chicks anymore, and decided the Bohemian artist life was more my style."

He began shooting large-format, black and white images of the Western landscape, inspired by the work of Frederick Sommer and Emmet Gowin. In 2000, the year he joined UVA, Wylie published Riverwalk: Explorations along the Cache la Poudre River, which won the Colorado Book Award. Since then he's completed a second volume, Stillwater, and is now working on a book about the Carrara work.

"He seems to crank it out," says his colleague, filmmaker Kevin Everson. "He always has projects in the works. He's good energy to be around."

With his Carrara photos opening at Richmond's Page Bond Gallery in February, Wylie has started shooting a highway that stretches across northern Kansas and documenting the Ohio coal-mining town where his mother grew up.

Thankful for his artistic awakening, he also feels obligated to give back through teaching. "The way I approach my classes is to get people to think about that transformation, that metamorphosis," Wylie says. "I want the picture to be the vehicle to something else."

Age: 49.

Why here? I was hired to teach art at UVA.

Worst about living here? The traffic, the way you have to risk your life to ride a bicycle almost anywhere around the area, and the seemingly thoughtless growth of the city. 

Favorite hangout? Beagle Gap Meadow off the Blue Ridge Parkway or Mudhouse, depending on the weather

Most overrated virtue? Taste

People would be surprised to know: My professional photography career started with The National Enquirer.

What would you change about yourself? I'd be more patient (it might help with the traffic).

Proudest accomplishment? A Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005

People find most annoying about you: Forgetfulness 

Whom do you admire? Mohammed Ali, The Greatest

Favorite book? Impossible question– it depends on the day. But one lasting favorite is the late Guy Davenport's The Hunter Gracchus. He had such a full-bodied and appreciative approach to thinking about art and culture.

Subject that causes you to rant? The Iraq debacle

Biggest 21st-century thrill? In-calling

Biggest 21st-century creep out? Reality shows 

What do you drive? 1986 Toyota 4W PU truck (held together with duct tape)

In your car CD player right now: Bob Dylan's Modern Times

Next journey? Lebanon, Kansas (the geographical center of the lower 48)

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Not the most trouble, but perhaps an interesting story... I was arrested, booked, and briefly jailed for sneaking a shower at The Four Seasons in Yosemite National Park after a late-night return from a three-day rock climb. I had to appear in court, and the circuit judge turned out to be a climber, too. He couldn't throw the case out, but he reduced my fine to the cost of a shower ($1).

Regret: I didn't stick with the cello after I got into grad school.

Favorite comfort food: Steak

Always in your refrigerator: Rice milk and pickles

Must-see TV: Curb Your Enthusiasm (seasons 1-4 in particular) and Mad TV

Favorite cartoon: South Park

Describe a perfect day: October fly-fishing on the Miracle Mile of the North Platte River. After catching (and releasing) a dozen 20" rainbow trout, I pause to take a great photograph of those low mountains to the east in fantastic evening light before grilling a big rib-eye and drinking a nice Italian red wine. If Bob Dylan could be there and we were strumming oldies together around the campfire, it would be even better.

Walter Mitty fantasy: See above

Who'd play you in the movie? Jack Palance (even Jack Palance dead could probably make me look good).

Most embarrassing moment? Losing my pants on the trampoline at church camp surrounded by coeds 

Best advice you ever got? Pessimism has a lot of prestige but very little muscle.

William Wylie