With his wispy red-brown hair, cuddly frame and air of guilelessness, there is something of the teddy bear about Robert Llewellyn, especially when he starts swatting at an imaginary fly.
“Here’s a fly,” he says, waving madly until the hands go still. “The eye of this fly is absolutely beautiful.”
When magnified, the insect’s compound eye becomes an all-seeing geodesic dome, a study in architecture and engineering. Most people just look at objects. Llewellyn sees them. He has spent more than 40 years as a professional photographer, most of them based in his house-cum-studio overlooking the Rivanna River a few miles upstream of Charlottesville.
He has photographed a shelf load of travel and landscape books between his bread-and-butter commercial work. Even the commercial gigs feed his visual curiosity. “Ever go down a coal mine?” he asks. “It’s white. You would think it would be black. It’s covered in lime because coal dust is explosive.”
Llewellyn, 65, may have thought he had seen everything until he worked on his latest book, with the garden writer Nancy Ross Hugo. It’s called “Seeing Trees.”
I find it ironic that the largest plants in the garden — spreading oaks, columnar tulip trees, big old hollies — are the least perceived. They are taken for granted, until they die or a limb comes crashing down.
The authors have brought the level of observation to new heights, presenting the daintiest parts of trees — buds, flower parts and seeds in various stages of ripening — in a way that hasn’t been seen, generally.
Llewellyn had always seen trees as important aesthetic forms in landscape photography. But when he worked with Hugo on an earlier book, “Remarkable Trees of Virginia,” he saw them differently. “First, they were living things, they are born, they die. And second, they live in communities.” In his new book, he has discovered that minute detail reveals something else, an unexpected and alien beauty.
What do we see when we look, and look closely? The maturing acorns of the sawtooth oak are wrapped in coarse tufts, like sea anemones; the pink flower of the redbud, in isolation, resembles a hummingbird; and the common Virginia pine tree sports baby, adolescent and mature cones all on the same branch.
The images reflect a depth of detail that until now, only the best botanical illustrators could approach. Llewellyn has used innovative digital camera technology to overcome the limitations of macro-photography. Normally, if you take an extreme close-up with a macro lens, the required aperture allows only a small area of soft focus surrounded by blur. Llewellyn figured out how to get around that.
In his photo studio, he takes a twig of post oak from his garden, removes a plump light - brown bud and cuts it in half. It’s not much bigger than a peppercorn. He places the sections below a camera mounted vertically on a motorized shaft. He taps a control panel and soon the camera is flashing away on its own. Over a couple of minutes, it takes 26 frames as it travels the grand distance of about an eighth of an inch closer to the buds. A computer then assembles the sharpest areas of each image into one composite picture: On a screen, we see sliced post oak buds in full and extreme detail. The bud scales enwrap embryonic leaves waiting for spring. They are green and tipped with translucent hairs. Each hair is visible. It is not the clarity of the image itself that is moving, but what it reveals.
“If you look at the female flowers of the walnut, they are gelatinous,” he said. They’re sticky to catch the male pollen but tender with it. “You can see why if there’s a frost, no walnuts.” Llewellyn studied engineering in college, and the sense of wonder about how things work abides with him. He is drawn to the way trees have engineered the dispersal of their seed.
The winged fruit of maples emerge like fairies. The seed of the elm is encapsulated in a tiny disc. The seeds of the sycamore spend the winter encased in balls suspended on long stalks, like Christmas tree ornaments. He cuts open a pod and hundreds of elongated seeds fall out like fish fry. He pokes one of them. “That’s a sycamore tree.”
And so the photographs reveal the ingenious ways a tree uses its height and the wind to transport its genes. A floating seed settles and takes root, and the resulting tree will stay put for years, maybe centuries. But first it must journey on the wind. “Plants that fly,” said Llewellyn. “Think about it.”
He is struck by the way the sycamore seed stalk slowly degrades over the winter, only releasing the seed in the spring, when it’s ready.
“Remarkable Trees” demonstrated that Virginia is a big state: Pursuing the commonwealth’s oldest trees meant piling on the miles. “Seeing Trees,” by contrast, required very little travel. Outside his front door, there are Japanese maples leading to a colossal white oak and its partner, an equally impressive red oak. The bark is fissured and dotted with light green lichen. Neither of us can resist the need to pat the trunk, like the neck of a draft horse.
In a little hollow beyond, there is a big old black walnut tree. Red cedars, with their blue-black berries, abound. We nibble on some for their ginlike flavor. On the other side of a farm barn, a sycamore stands in the drizzle like a white ghost hovering above a meadow of little bluestem grasses.
Llewellyn knew that with every branch he snipped for his studio, he would be drawn into a universe that is ubiquitous but hidden. These wonders inhabit every yard, even in winter. “It’s right in front of you,” he said, still incredulous.