Look again: Sanjay Suchak finds new views of the Old Dominion

Photographer Sanjay Suchak gained new perspectives in his work after adding a drone to his toolkit. His exhibition “From Richmond to the Blue Ridge: New Takes on “Familiar Landscapes” runs through October 31 at the Crozet Artisan Depot.  Photographer Sanjay Suchak gained new perspectives in his work after adding a drone to his toolkit. His exhibition “From Richmond to the Blue Ridge: New Takes on “Familiar Landscapes” runs through October 31 at the Crozet Artisan Depot. 

In a year defined by wild new perspectives—on health, on risk, on human separation and connectedness—images have played a central role. Photos of people in crowds or isolation are newly fraught, and as we gather virtually, the visual appearance of other humans on-screen has become a startling, imperfect social lifeline. Sanjay Suchak’s photography show at the Crozet Artisan Depot isn’t limited to images from this year, but the way it cultivates space for alternate perspectives feels very apropos for 2020.

Take, for example, his shots of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond—an object that stands for so much pain and, graffitied or not, is usually pictured from below. Indeed, it was designed to loom over the viewer, expressing white supremacy and dominance in its presentation of the Confederate general as a towering figure upheld by a permanent-seeming pedestal.

That permanence is less assured these days, even though the statue for the moment stands. Suchak’s take on the monument turns the usual perspective upside down, using a drone camera to position the viewer directly above the statue.

Not only does this offer poetic justice (now who’s being looked down at?), it reminds us that the statue is an object, not a person, and that its power derives from nothing more substantial than convention. Lee and his horse become just frozen metal, their position suddenly awkward, their antique patina belied by the lively quilt of spray-painted color that artist-protesters spontaneously created all around the statue’s base.

Suchak is UVA’s senior photographer and works independently for clients like National Geographic, but he’s exceedingly modest about his presentation of these images at the Depot. “I never really considered the fine art space,” he says. “These are just beautiful photos of the region.” True, there are familiar Virginia icons here, but there’s nearly always a twist: He shows the Rotunda with lightning forking through the sky above it. (“That would be a terrible image for UVA to use,” Suchak acknowledges dryly.)

His view of the Blue Ridge Parkway is a long-exposure image of stars wheeling through the night, a hint of immense time spans and distances that dwarf the human world. And, standing in a 7-11 parking lot off I-64 near Williamsburg, he used a drone to hover above private land where a flock of decommissioned presidential busts, 15 or 20 feet tall, huddle surreally in a field.

Suchak says he got into drone photography “just to have another tool in the toolkit of being a photographer.” He realized, though, that the drone offered not only the possibility of a kind of omniscience—seeing everything—but the chance to show things from angles most people have never considered. “I try to go for simplicity: addition by subtraction,” he says. “All drone cameras are pretty much like your iPhone—very wide. You have to compose your scene simply.”

Suchak doesn’t shy away from the social struggles that have made this year such a searing one in Virginia and elsewhere; many of the images concern the rewriting and removal of Confederate monuments, including the Johnny Reb statue in Charlottesville. “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. I think it’s the start of a very important conversation,” he says.

Interestingly, there are photos of a Gordonsville rodeo here too: plaid shirts, rippling hides, and all. It’s tempting to make assumptions about how mismatched the nostalgic realm of the rodeo might be with the urban, future-looking world represented by some of Suchak’s other images—say, the one of a young female graduate in cap and gown raising a fist in front of a graffiti-enhanced monument.

But if there’s one thing 2020 asks us to do, it’s to reconsider what we think we know. As Suchak’s collection proves, this is a complex region, state, and world, with room for infinite perspectives.

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