For all to see: Robert Llewellyn brings the natural world into view

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Throughout his 50-year career, photographer Robert Llewellyn has made it his business to document the fine details—from flowers and seeds to trees and forests. Photo: Robert Llewellyn Throughout his 50-year career, photographer Robert Llewellyn has made it his business to document the fine details—from flowers and seeds to trees and forests. Photo: Robert Llewellyn

The photographer Robert Llewellyn looks at things differently than you and I. While we might point out the colorful crocuses that dot the snow-covered front lawn of his Earlysville home, Llewellyn really sees them. And he wants to be certain a visitor does too, bending down to point out the particulars of yellow stamens and purple petals.

There’s something professorial about the 72-year-old, who’s made it his business to photograph the minutest details of flowers, seeds, trees and forests, among the myriad other subjects he’s carefully examined over the course of 35 books.

Photo: Sanjay Suchak

“We’re only here to visit the trees,” Llewellyn says as he moves from one room to another in his airy home studio. “They were here way before humans; they’re hosting us.” He places what appears to be an ordinary piece of bark on a table below a large window lined with crystals of different sizes and shapes that he’s currently using in conjunction with circuit boards to create images of cities. When he turns the wood over, it becomes something else entirely: a foreign land covered with a maze of tiny trenches that bark beetles dug as they laid their eggs. When the eggs hatched, Llewellyn explains, the beetles burrowed out.

“Notice how none of them cross,” he says, clearly in awe of the trench trails, and then he points out the small holes in the wood through which the insects eventually surfaced.

Llewellyn pauses at the thought of this, and then asks, “What would you see if you were looking at the world for the very first time? What would you smell? What would you hear?”         

Photo: Sanjay Suchak

He says everyone should collect something because doing so compels us to “really see the world,” to develop the skill of observation (“you see the things you choose to collect everywhere”) and changes how we view the planet. Anything Llewellyn himself sees is fodder for his work (he laughs at the memory of nearly being run over in a downtown Charlottesville crosswalk, where he’d lingered too long to photograph cracks and circles on the pavement). And although he dislikes using the word “work” to describe how he’s made his living for nearly 50 years, the teacher in him can’t help tossing out a quote by Michelangelo: “If people know how hard I work to create my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”

Photo: Sanjay Suchak

But as numerous critics have pointed out, Llewellyn’s photography is wonderful, such as the large image of a snapper’s eye, just one of the photographs in his studio that demand a closer look. When asked about it, Llewellyn admits that his wife, Bobbi (a psychotherapist), bought the fish at Whole Foods (“It cost about $30,” he says, still somewhat outraged), and brought it home one evening for dinner—eyes, scales and all. Before cooking the snapper (“Martha Stewart says you’re supposed to leave the scales on” when you prepare it, he reports), Llewellyn shot the photo, which hangs near a large table covered with small skeletons, bones and skulls.

When you look around Llewellyn’s vast studio—at the carefully organized and displayed raw materials from past projects and those currently in the works; the precise, stunning photographs; three enormous computer monitors; large light tables; a Wimshurst electrostatic generator that he enjoys demonstrating—it’s all a bit overwhelming. But to Llewellyn, who’s about a year into a project that looks at our planet, something he calls the Orb Project (“since we live on one floating in vast space, spinning 17,000 miles per hour”), it’s home; the place where many of the “things that have called out to me” over the years are always within reach.

Photo: Robert Llewellyn

Picture perfect

“Being a photographer is quite simple,” says Robert Llewellyn. “You start with a frame. You then must decide what to put in the frame and what to leave out. You also must decide where to put things in the frame. Things at the edge create tension. Things in the middle create calm.” Llewellyn offers the following advice to photographers who want to expertly frame what nature has to offer.

Photo: Robert Llewellyn

The best time to photograph outdoors: “You can make a photograph no matter the time of day or the weather. Some say you cannot make good photographs at noon on a clear day. Well actually, if you look straight up you find, say, an awesome backlit forest canopy. I like to go out in what people call ‘bad’ weather—rain, snow, freezing rain, fog, wind, clouds, whatever. Play the conditions, as they say in sports. The landscape changes with the weather and seasons. The Norwegians say, ‘There is no bad weather, only bad clothes.’”

Photo: Robert Llewellyn

Photographing wildlife: “Sit in the rain all day and wait for wildlife to appear. Actually, except for puppy dogs and kitty cats—although I am not sure about all the cats—animals do not like humans and will run away or bite you. Real wildlife photography is an enormous skill that I greatly admire. It usually requires thousands of dollars in telephoto lenses. You may have to wait days to get the image you want. You may wait days and get nothing. Having said all that, go into the wild and see what happens; what finds you. And be ready. You may only have a moment.”

Photo: Robert Llewellyn

Capturing landscapes: “I have heard there are rules of composition. My personality does not resonate with rules. Go out and see what calls out to you. It will wave, ‘Over here, do me.’ The test is: Would it hurt if you left it? Then explore it with your camera, with no idea what the image will look like. Make lots of images. You learn from each one. And you grow. Lie on your back. Crawl on your belly. The photograph you will like the most is the one you could not have possibly imagined. Be wild. Be bold.” SS

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