Robert Llewellyn answers questions about himself, being a photographer, what fascinates him about his projects, his forest and wildlife photography, etc. Bob grew up in south central Virginia, and first worked with a camera in his senior year in high school when he became editor of the student yearbook. Walking around campus with a Nikon camera around his neck that year opened up a new world for him. He studied engineering science at the University of Virginia, and then photography with Imogen Cunningham in California. He now lives with his wife Barbara in Earlysville, Virginia, where he works out of his home studio.
How did your first experience behind a camera in high school affect you?
I was amazed at how the camera changes you. I was sort of invisible before, and then suddenly with a camera, it’s a whole different interaction. The wonderful thing about photography is that everything shows up as new. You see things that make you say, “Wow.” I say that a lot.
Can you name a few of your artistic influences?
When I created the earlier books on trees, flowers, and seeds I was inspired by the work of Karl Blossfeldt with plant forms in 1929. Forms that for the most part were hiding in plain sight. Exquisite. Blossfeldt also made nature images in the 1930s for his design students. They are extraordinary.
For the forest project I went to painters of landscapes. I looked at William Turner, James Whistler, and most of all Anselm Kiefer.
What is your home studio like?
My studio is half of my house. I like working at home. I live on the Rivanna River outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. I have 60 acres of land — in the middle of 87 million acres of forest — so I could go out my door and collect nature samples.
Where is your favorite shooting location?
I don’t have one. I like the visual challenge of making a photograph wherever I am. Sometimes a place I have never been before tends to light me up because it’s all new.
What role does observation play in photography?
The skill of observation is vital: moving from looking to seeing. At a party, you can just mindlessly chatter with people, or you can really see them — what their bodies, gestures and emotions are communicating. Labels and names get in the way of seeing things as they are. Stop labeling things or worrying about what they are called.
As with meditation, just relax into observing, to embrace things as they are.
What is it like for you being completely surrounded by nature?
I see everything as nature. Humans are just another creature mingling among the others, doing what humans do. Humans do interface with the forest and wildlife. Humans are mammals and are one of the inhabitants of this planet, and we are very active changing the landscape, air, etc.
Humans build things like cities and buses. I think of a city the same way I would think of a hornet’s nest, or birds that instinctively build nests. Sometimes a forest scene is a barely visible library of what came before.
The exception would be old growth forest.
Can you describe your nature projects in personal words?
I wanted to explore everything as a new adventure and find out how everything works, and how they are all connected. We all have a round-trip ticket to planet Earth. Imagine Earth is a new planet. What would you do? You would say "wow" a lot. That’s what humans involuntary say when we experience something "new".
What was the most challenging aspects of your projects and the most fulfilling?
The most challenging thing for me was to get a grasp of this other civilization living with us, the humans. With this forest book and my other plant books, I discovered every life form has a plan, all plants and animals. Their mission is to reproduce their species. There is interdependence in the forest. For example the blackberry lily has brilliant orange flowers to attract bees and get pollinated. Then it drops the petals and forms a black seedpod containing its offspring. The pods looks like blackberries. Bears like blackberries. The plan. Interdependence.
Do you have any general thoughts from your experience photographing nature?
We’re very complacent with our planet. I wish people didn’t look at flat screens and iPhones so much, and instead saw the world in real time and without labeling. Labeling things gets in the way of seeing. What would happen if you could look at things without labels? You would look at them, and you’d be amazed.
There is still an enormous amount about Earth that is unknown. Look at things without naming them. When you name something you think you are done.
See the planet. Collect things. Make everything as if seeing it for the first time.
Discover for yourself.
What do recommend taking with you for a day of shooting in nature?
A camera. Actually any will do. You can make great photographs with your telephone. The iPhone® has a great camera for the size of the sensor. In fact the small sensor gives you amazing depth of field.
Depending on where I am going, I bring a wide selection of lenses, from 14mm to 1000mm. I make lots of photographs. I even make several frames at different distances and stitch them together in the computer for more sharpness depth.
Actually there is one animal in the forest that really likes humans. Ticks. They will bite you. Very, very dangerous wildlife. Wear repellent. Put it on everything, even clothes. I have a small blanket treated with permethrin that I use when I want to be on the ground.
Lastly bring more batteries, water, food, towels, and clothes than you think you will need. Bring a phone for emergencies.
How did you get involved with the The Living Forest project?
What an opportunity it was for me. I want to learn everything I can about this planet we live on. I like mysteries. We don’t know it all by far. As a photographer I am drawn to finding and seeing new things.
Writer Joan Maloof and I both had books published by Timber Press. Joan is a scientist and a biology professor. Timber wanted to publish a forest book, so we created this collaboration. There was no hesitation on my part.
What equipment did you use during the course of the forest project?
Most photographs were made on a tripod with a Canon 5DsR that has a 50mb sensor. I used a Canon 5D Mark IV for moving wildlife because it could track focus even through dense tree branches. I really don’t know how it does that.
I have been a photographer for five decades, so all the different lenses are an extension of my eye. It’s like a tennis racket is an extension of your arm.
For the forest project I used a dozen lenses with focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 2000mm. Different lenses changes relationships of things in the frame. Infinite choices. It's like 3D chess.
How do you decide what to shoot in the forest?
Mostly I go into the forest without a list. For a photographer, anything can be a good subject, even dirt. My mission is to move people from merely looking at things to deeply seeing things as they are.
I think humans can change from looking to seeing. When I do that things call out to me, “over here, do me!” The test is “would it hurt if you left and did not make a photograph”?
Sometimes I was directed a bit by my project partner, Joan Maloof. She would say, “Go into the forest and turn over a fallen decaying log.” I asked, “What will I see?” She said “I am not going to tell you”.
She once did give a list of specific things to find in the forest – like a treasure hunt. I live in the middle of 87 million acres of forest. With help from some assistants, I did find them all.
How do you capture photographs of wildlife?
Real wildlife photography is an enormous skill that I greatly admire. It usually requires thousands of dollars in big telephoto lenses. Remember, they don’t like you, so you need to be far away.
You may have to wait days to get the image you want. You may wait days and get nothing. Go into the wild and see what happens. What finds you.
And be ready. You may only have a moment.
What’s it like photographing animals?
Finding animals is not very difficult in the forest. Once I choose to photograph animals, they are suddenly everywhere – hiding in plain sight. Some are larger than me and some are microscopic. Some you discover under the fallen log.
My work with small seeds for my Seeing Seeds book gave me the skills to get extremely close. I do greatly admire photographers who have devoted their life to making amazing wildlife images. They can put on camouflage and sit and wait for days, often using extremely long and expensive telephoto lenses. Sometime nothing appears.
You should remember that forest animals do not generally hold still for photographs. They do not like humans and will run away, or bite you and run away – with the possible exception of ticks.
Have you ever photographed animals in captivity?
Images of some wildlife can be hard to capture – really skittish animals, for example. Some wildlife photographers use camera traps. There are some great images captured that way. I prefer not to have my camera taking photographs without my being there.
I wanted a woods mouse ear close up. I guess I could have crawled on my belly at night. Or covered my nose with almond butter.
So, yes, I have photographed some animals in captivity, when it’s my only option – taking care not to harm them in any way.
How does your process and approach to shooting differ in your studio and in outdoor settings?
Many things I do bring into the studio to isolate them and get closer. The forest is a challenge because when you look through the frame there are an enormous number of things to put in or take out.
Going into the forest, with a camera, is a different mindset. First, don’t complain – about anything. There is no good light or bad light, just light. Find a way. There are no bad subjects. I can make a photograph of anything. There is no good weather or bad weather – just weather, all the time.
Do you prefer digital or film photography?
Digital by far. Digital is sharper, has greater tonal range and can be easily edited in Adobe Photoshop®. Photoshop reminds me of when I used to make black-and-white prints in the darkroom. Photoshop is the new darkroom.
With film, you are at the mercy of the characteristics of the film.
How do you keep it fresh each time when you shoot the same sorts of things?
I call it the “elseness” exercise. What else is it? What else is it? What else is it? There is no end.
I think being a photographer is a wonderful way to visit earth – a great adventure. There is always something new to see and photograph. There is always more to see and learn about trees, for example, and about everything else.
Photography has infinite possibilities.
How do you make my images stand out from everyone else’s?
Do not make any photographs that look like everyone else’s. If it looks familiar it is not new. You want to make “new”.
“Wow” is the word that humans utter when they have seen something new. Go for “wow”.
What time of day is best for photographing outdoors?
Some say you cannot make good photographs at noon on a clear day. Some photographers only go out in first light or last light. So you get maybe fog and red skies. I don’t think there is a best time. You can make a photograph no matter the time of day or the weather.
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.”
Look straight up and you might find, say, an awesome backlit forest canopy.
How do you protect camera equipment from the elements?
I know they make cases to go on cameras and lenses that are waterproof. I change lenses so often they are not good for me. They are good if you shoot wildlife and you are sitting in rain all day with a long telephoto lens, waiting for wildlife to appear.
I use an umbrella. I have many. All different sizes. I can put them on a stand or over my shoulder or down my coat in the back so my hands are free. I almost always use a tripod. Because of wind, don’t tie the umbrella to a tripod.
Carry a piece of clear plastic from your dry cleaning with you. It's very light and you can cover you and your equipment at the same time. It's also disposable.
I also bring lots of towels.
What are some good photo composition strategies for capturing landscapes?
I have heard there are rules of composition. My personality does not resonate with rules. As Ansel Adams said “there are no rules, just good photographs.” 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. The one you will like the most is the one you could not have possibly imagined.
A photograph has a frame with things inside and outside. Make sure there is nothing inside you do not want. Things at the edge create tension. Things in the middle create calm.
Be wild. Be bold. Do the “elseness exercise”. What else is it? What else is it? What else is it? Lie on your back. Crawl on you belly, etc.
Do you use a tripod?
I shoot most photographs with a good tripod. I have a really heavy one for windy days. I think the tripod is a two-edged sword. It does steady the camera for sharp images. I handhold the camera to frame what I want and then I move the tripod under it.
There is a school of thought that hand-holding a camera gives you way more freedom to explore and see new things. It is also good if you like backgrounds out of focus. The downside is that your photographs may not be really sharp. Most unsharp images come from camera movement during the exposure. Human error. Oh, that beating heart!
Are the pronounced patterns and shapes in your work a byproduct of your subject matter, or by design?
Humans are attracted to patterns and rhythms. They create vibrations that are viewed as very active. Humans are also drawn to light things (like moths?). Being a photographer is quite simple. 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. Often shapes at the edge create tension. Shapes in the middle are calmer.
I don’t think there are rules for photography. But the images can have similar effects on the human viewer.
How do you prepare the samples before photographing them?
I look at them from all angles with the camera. Some seeds are a foot across and some are the size of the period at the end of this sentence. They are 3D, so there are numerous options on how you look at them and photograph them. I explore the seed for a while and at some point it will call out to me.
I wanted to photograph small parts (e.g., leaves, fruit, bark and flowers), so I would cut off a bloom, twig, or seed pod and put it on a light table and take hundreds of photos — which strung together were infinitely sharp, like a botanic drawing. I found I could zoom into my subject up to a pollen grain this way.
I often have ten or more versions of the same seed. I have over 2,000 images of seeds.
What technology do you use for photographing seeds?
To make the image sharp from top to bottom, I use a technique called "focus stacking". I put the seeds on a glowing light table in my studio and do a series of photographs at different focus points from top-to-bottom, overlapping the sharp parts. I then load the images into stacking software, like Zerene Stacker® or Helicon Focus®, and they get stitched together — using the sharpest parts of each image — into one combined image that is infinitely sharp.
Your first major work was a book about Washington, D.C. Is there any chance of your focusing your lens on the urban landscape again?
I have started a new project that is not a book. I call it the Orb Project, since we live on one floating in vast space spinning 17,000 miles per hour (for 4.5 billion years). I have collected orbs for many years as well as machine parts, bones and ancient artifacts.
I think “collecting” anything changes your view of the planet. You see the things you choose to collect everywhere.
I am making complex layered photographs of the things I found on Earth as evidence of the rise of all plants and animals. I do many images about the evolution of humans and the civilizations that arose and collapsed. So I am back somewhat to looking at urban landscapes as evidence of our very complex current human civilization.
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