Photographer Robert Llewellyn (Engr ’69) came to the University of Virginia to study engineering because of a lifelong fascination with deconstructing things. He left early for the same reason.
Four years into a five-year degree program he’d never complete, Llewellyn lit out for California in 1968 to study nature photography with Imogen Cunningham. She was part of a circle of 20th-century masters, Ansel Adams among them, who delved in the vérité of large-format cameras, seemingly infinite depth of field, exacting composition and near obsession with detail.
It gave Llewellyn a new way of seeing the natural world. As he puts it, “I became a photographer because that was another way to find out how things work.”
That’s only one of several reasons we selected (begged, really) Llewellyn to photograph this issue’s cover story on the Dell. Like Llewellyn himself, that botanical oasis across Emmet Street from the UVA Bookstore embodies the fusion of engineering and art. As senior editor Diane J. McDougall reports, the Dell is form following function. UVA couldn’t erect John Paul Jones Arena as we know it until it conquered decades-long stormwater issues almost a mile upstream. Beautiful green space solved a not-so-pretty engineering problem.
Llewellyn and McDougall teamed up on last fall’s popular cover story showcasing the trees of Grounds, another reason we called him for this year’s nature shoot. In some respects, this was the tougher assignment. While last year we could point with specificity to our story subjects—the Yulan magnolia behind the Rotunda, for example—this year we charged Llewellyn with making wide open spaces compelling.
He welcomed the challenge. “Well, it’s not the Rotunda,” he says, “and it’s pretty minimalist.” It drew on his training with Cunningham and the art of selecting just the right elements to compose each frame.
Llewellyn says he approaches each assignment without preconception, as if he just landed from a different planet. “‘Wow’ is just what humans say when they see something new,” he says. Having stalked his subject over several days, at different hours of day and in changeable weather, for him the wow factor of the Dell shoot was time of day. Conventional practice favors dusk and dawn. “‘Photographers should be asleep at noon.’ I’ve never agreed with that,” he says.
When you go to our story and see Llewellyn’s favorite frames—the ones with cottony clouds against deep midday skies, all reflected among the lily pads—you’ll understand why.
S. Richard Gard Jr. (Col ’81)
Vice President, Communications, UVA Alumni Association