FACETIME- Magical mirrors: Llewellyn's lens captures, recreates history

Photographer Robert Llewellyn didn't intend to be an antiques collector. He has 600,000 slides and people would call, knowing he had photos of Boston or Washington. 

"One day it changed," Llewellyn says. Online stock images made the 600,000 slides antiques, though they're still filed in 23 cabinets in his house that has views of the Rivanna River from every room. 

Like so many others, Llewellyn came to the University of Virginia in the '60s and never left. 

His first book, Mr. Jefferson's Upland Virginia, mines the same county he has now returned to more than two decades later with Albemarle: A Story of Landscape and American Identity. In Albemarle, he collaborated with writer Avery Chenoweth to create a book that decorates coffee tables all over the county.

"It's pretty unusual to do a book about a county," Llewellyn says.

The second book by the two– and Llewellyn's 30th– coincides with Jamestown's 400th anniversary: Empires in the Forest: Jamestown and the Beginning of America. 

"Avery said that was a story that had never been told," Llewellyn says. "America came out of that."

The problem with telling the story of Jamestown in photos was that "nothing reflected light," he says. "Everything is gone. We almost had to shoot it like a film."

They paid to shoot on the rebuilt Jamestown settlement, and used descendants of Powhatan to portray the chief, Pocahontas, and John Smith.

And for the starving settlers, "We went and got guys from a rock band in Richmond," Llewellyn laughs.

 "There are a lot of points where Jamestown could have failed, a lot of tipping points," he says, and he compares the English ships to hostile flying saucers. "What a story. These three ships come over and take over your entire nation."

Llewellyn, 61, has made a career of capturing this country's history with his lens. He followed his first book with one about Washington, D.C. 

"It's a city of temples," he says, flipping through images of our nation's monuments. "This book did very well in D.C." In fact, some White House and State Department officials use leather-bound copies as gifts.

His third book was about the Academical Village. "Then other publishers saw my work," says Llewellyn.

"It seems to me he's always trying to capture something that's hovering on the periphery of your senses that seems to be spiritual," Chenoweth says.

In high school, Llewellyn thought photography was magic. A camera "changes how you go through life. You see things differently.... You see a photograph, not a thing."

See Robert Llewellyn and Avery Chenoweth at the Virginia Festival of the Book March 22 at 2pm at Vinegar Hill Theatre.

Robert Llewellyn


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