Wylies's obsession: A river runs through it

In producing the photos that comprise the book Stillwater and the exhibit of the same name, photographer William Wylie spent several years along the banks of the Cache la Poudre, a river running through Ft. Collins, Colorado. Evidently, the five-mile stretch of the Poudre which attracted Wylie runs right up against civilization– that is, it is clearly visible from highways, parking lots, and back porches.
But you wouldn’t know that from Wylie’s pictures. The juxtaposition of nature and the quick-mart is not his thing. The photographer (and assistant professor in UVA’s McIntire department of art) is wholly obsessed with the surface of the river. His images, with their tight focus, blurry margins, and frequent lack of contextual elements (trees, river bank) are the photo equivalent of squinting over the side of the boat.
A quote on the wall by Wendell Berry nicely sets up more than a few of the black and white photos, which trace the wobbly, half-abstracted reflections of what might be trees along the bank set against the contrasting pattern of the river’s own undulation. Wylie shows an interest in the changes of the river surface over time. Almost without exception, he limits himself to the water’s surface, which makes it difficult to tell the spring shots from summer or fall.
Wylie does include a winter shot, however, one which takes in the topography of his river frozen into tiny ridges. Nevertheless, the reflecting surface of the river seems to be his overriding interest, and true to form, the photographer couldn’t resist leaving a tiny patch of unfrozen river in the top left corner of his frame– here also with the wavy shadows, widening in waves as they stretch out, like a rust stain streaming from an old bolt exposed to the elements. 
As you follow the photos around the display space, downstairs at the University of Virginia Art Museum, Wylie’s photography seems to inch closer and closer to pure abstraction. One photo in particular, almost at the end of the bunch, assumes an extremely tight shot of a ripple in the water. The satiny, enlarged surface looks almost like an imaginary landscape, a field of cloud, or a cut yard of rumpled silk. In the context of the exhibit, it is easy to recognize the river again. But without that context, it isn’t clear at all.
Wylie obviously possesses the kind of patience most people lack– the patience to spend hours starring at the water’s surface, discerning and then choosing from its endless variation. Fortunately for us, he is also a photographer.

Stillwater, photography by William Wylie, runs through October 27 at the University of Virginia Art Museum. A gallery talk, reception and book signing are scheduled for Sunday, September 29, at 2pm. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.

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