Photographs from the South of Italy

Jay Wolke, "Quarried Hill, Mattera" (2000)

CHICAGO — Jay Wolke is a photographer of people and places whose work is in collections across the United States, including the MoMA and Whitney Museum in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago. Though he lives and works in Chicago, where he is chair of the Art and Design Department at Columbia College Chicago, his work often takes him to far-away places, both in terms of distance and culture. Dream Cities, his first major body of work from the late 1980s, documented the weird and lurid life of two gambling towns in the USA — Las Vegas and Atlantic City — just before they started to turn into all-purpose family destinations. Think of the Casino film by Martin Scorsese crossed with anything by David Lynch, and you’ll be close.

Left, Jay Wolke, right, the cover of his new book.

In his latest series of photographs, recently published by the Center for American Places, Wolke turned his lens on the landscape of southern Italy. Entitled Architecture of Resignation: Photographs from the Mezzogiorno, the series consists of large-format images of places filled with the architectural detritus of millennia — marble columns that are the lone survivors of an ancient city, an abandoned World War II military base, the interior of a Roman grave littered with modern garbage, the remnant of a quarried hill, sculpted by industry until all that’s left is an unearthly, oddly beautiful lump rearing up from a flat landscape. Whether in the city or the countryside, Wolke chose to photograph these spaces completely devoid of people. All we see are buildings and objects, decay and abandonment. Despite the gorgeous colors and the mastery of the printing process, they make the viewer somehow alienated from the traditional view of Italy as a living art gallery.

I was able to catch up with Jay Wolke this week and talk to him about how he sees these new works, and how they connect to his older series.

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One of Wolke's older photographs, "Worker with Pick, Las Vegas" (1987)

Philip Hartigan: Talk a little about your new book of photographs, Architecture of Resignation.

Jay Wolke: Architecture of Resignation is a photographic project I worked on from 2000 to 2007 in the Mezzogiorno region of Italy (Rome and south). It is a visual investigation of artifacts, architecture and landscapes that reflect the complex social and political structures that have dominated the region for almost three thousand years. The subsequent adaptations and resignations of those subjects to these forces are evident in the often dysfunctional and quite ambiguous circumstances displayed in the photographs. During the eight years working on this project, I made hundreds of photos during twelve trips to the Mezzogiorno, representing shooting periods ranging from two weeks to four months.

PH: I notice that, although this series seems to represent a new departure for you, the structures crowd the frame like the people in your earlier series such as Italian Conversations. What other connections to or differences from earlier work do you see in the new work?

JW: Common to all of my photographic projects, I look for complex hierarchies and a rich layering of elements, whether I’m photographing human, architectural or environmental subjects. I’m definitely attracted to an active, visual field and employ the counterpoint and juxtaposition of elements that call our perceptions into question. Perhaps the project that is most reminiscent of this one is Along the Divide, which documented the various structures and landscapes on and around the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. Both projects reflect my interest in researching very large systems that demonstrate effects of social and political power on the built environment and the lives of ordinary people who must adapt to these dynamics. Also, both projects function because of my implementation of multiple typologies in the depiction of these systems.

"Melted Tower, Palermo, Sicily" (2000)

PH: It goes without saying that the photographs are rich in detail and color, with great attention to formal qualities of structure, point of view, etc. How would you describe your choices when making a picture?

JW: In photography, I believe approach is everything, and many factors influence my decision to make a photograph. For this project, I researched extensively, worked with excellent assistants, queried many people and often scouted for extended periods while investigating a given geographical area. Many days I drove hundreds of kilometers before finding the type of conditions that I was looking for, and only when the light, color and narrative elements were photographically congruous, would I even set up the camera. The images from Architecture of Resignation were made with a 4×5 view camera so, in many respects, the actual photographic exposure is really the very last and most incidental aspect of the process.

"Roman Mausoleum Ruins Mattress, Via Appia Lazio" (2007)

PH: In so many of your photographs, it seems like an event is taking place, has just finished, or is about to happen. To what extent are your pictures objects, and to what extent stories?

JW: My goal is for my photographs to read as dynamic narratives rather than static subjects, and I deliberately look for unfolding event structures, rather than stationary objects. I believe great photographs must be visually constructed to imply both a past and a future, despite the persistent present that is, in fact, evident. The conditions that gave rise to the subjects in Architecture of Resignation manifest in an elaborate aggregation of visual information and, hopefully, these images tell stories that expose the rise and fall of various political, religious and commercial powers, as well as the often-capricious inventions of ambitious individuals.

PH: Final question, and answer this in any way that’s meaningful to you: why are you a photographer?

JW: I started out my art practice as a painter, printmaker, installation and performance artist. Originally, I used photography only as a reference tool or as an adjacent component within larger works. Eventually, I discovered that the processes exhibited in the world itself held more interest and displayed more depth of meaning to me than those works that I artificially created from scratch.

I found that photography was not only an outstanding tool for primary investigation, but also an extremely gratifying way to produce visual artworks. For me, photography offers the unique ability to represent the world in a way that corresponds to the viewer’s expectations, while creating an artifact that is wholly constructed and illusory. It is a wonderful and strange exchange of information. As Garry Winogrand stated: “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”

Jay Wolke will be discussing and signing copies of Architecture of Resignation at The Book Stall (811 Elm Street, Winnetka, Illinois) on Friday February 17 at 6:30 pm.

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