Ted Pellegatta: photos, with feeling

‘Virginia’s Blue Ridge: A Pictorial Journey’

is available online ($45) at virginiasblueridgethebook .com, by calling 540-212-3951 or locally at: R.H. Ballard, Washington; Central Coffee, Sperryvile; the Sperryville Corner Store; River District Arts at Rappahannock Central, Sperryville; Ginger Hill Antiques, Washington; Oak Shade Farm, Rixeyville; Horse Country Saddlery, Warrenton; the Apple House, Linden;; Mimslyn Inn, Luray; and Oak Shade Farm, Rixeyville.

Ted Pellegatta has worn a lot of hats in his life. When he’s doing what he loves best, however, he usually has to remove the hat – the brim interferes with the camera.

The rest of us should take our hats off for another reason: Just shy of his 72nd birthday, longtime Rappahannock County resident, itinerant chef, cancer survivor, occasional horseman and habitual photographer Pellegatta has finally published a book of his photos of Rappahannock and the Blue Ridge.

They are – in a word – moving. Science has yet to understand why.

The 109 photos in “Virginia’s Blue Ridge: A Pictorial Journey” were chosen from the many thousands Pellegatta has taken over the 30-odd years since he met both the Blue Ridge and a 35mm film camera for the first time. Each one of them has the potential to remind you of why you came here, or why you stay here.

This might have something to do with Pellegatta’s insistence on sticking with film (Fuji Provia 100 ASA slide film) while the rest of his peers have long since gone digital; it might be the well-known, canonized and even codified scenic beauty hereabouts; many think it has something to do with the fact that Pellegatta often approaches his photographs on foot – or on a horse or mule, or, slower still, his ancient Ford pickup – and that the resulting image somehow reflects this dance between observer and observed.

“This place,” says Pellegatta, “really embraces me somehow. It has a feeling no other place has. And . . . not only does the aesthetic beauty come out with this land, but it’s a feeling – and that feeling somehow is transmitted through the camera. I don’t know how that happens, do you? I have often been amazed, and still am, how a photograph I’ve taken has touched people.

“I seem to have the ability, and I don’t know why, to be able to capture the mood of this place. To do what I do, you need the courage to be lonesome,” he says. “What I do, I do alone, and I come to be in touch with the land, and I hope with the people who lived here before.”

Ted Pellegatta is the photographer behind "Virginia's Blue Ridge: A Pictorial Journey." | Rappahannock News
Ted Pellegatta is the photographer behind "Virginia's Blue Ridge: A Pictorial Journey."

Pellegatta, though more often affable than mysterious, says he believes the age of this place has a lot to do with the appeal he tries to capture on film.

“Old Rag – it’s close to a billion years old,” he says. “They say as a young mountain, it was like 19,000 feet. And there were so many indigenous people who lived here. I don’t know if you believe in spirits, but the people who were here and were a part of the land, who lived off the land – and then all the guys from the Civil War days – they all have an impact on the spirit of this place.”

Pellegatta has had a . . . spirited life. He grew up among a couple of generations of restaurant folk in Bethlehem, Pa. and went to work at Bethlehem Steel in the 1960s, after spending time in the Marines. He moved to Rappahannock full time 20 years ago, having weekended here for a decade before that. He’s had wholesale produce businesses, waited tables, cooked in nearly every restaurant in the county (including one he opened himself, briefly, in Sperryville).

About seven years ago, he found himself battling cancer – a battle he won – and then, one day in 2005 when his right arm just “stopped working,” found himself at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where they told him he had a walnut-sized brain tumor.

Like the battle with cancer, and the even tougher one he won more than 30 years ago with alcohol, Pellegatta got through it. It was during his recovery from brain surgery that he decided to go beyond the occasional photo calendars and prints he’s sold since he took up photography in 1983 and, finally, “do the book.”

Pellegatta credits his Flint Hill neighbor Bob Metcalfe, a retired airline pilot who owned a Mac and knew how to fly it, with helping him finish the organization – and digital scanning – needed before the book project could progress in the post-paper publishing world.

An image from the book, "Virginia's Blue Ridge."Ted Pellegatta
An image from the book, "Virginia's Blue Ridge."

“When all the slides had been transferred to disk,” Pellegatta says, “I sat there with him and we did a layout in iPhoto. I’m computer illiterate, but we finished it – and he hits a button and sends it to Apple, and five days later, a hardcover book arrives.”

Pellegatta, having investigated and not been impressed with the possibilities of traditional book-publishing deals, decided to publish the book himself, and sought investors. He found four friends willing to invest $5,000 each, found a Virginia publisher (like his insistence on film, he insisted on buying this service as locally as possible, though sending the pages to China would’ve saved him about a dollar per book), and the rest is history.

Actually, it’s not yet history, but Pellegatta does have a web site and email address (see box), and amicably left his latest part-time job at Sperryville’s Cafe Indigo to pursue the marketing of his book.

He’ll turn 72 on Sunday, Dec. 4 – and will be, he says, exactly where he wants to be that day: selling and signing books at one of the artisans’ markets during the Christmas in Little Washington celebration.

Shortly after he picked up a friend’s camera for the first time in 1982 and found that the images he got from it – black and white urban scenes in Baltimore that reminded him of his days in Bethlehem – Pellegatta says a photographer friend gave him some advice.

“He said, ‘Ted, you’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so I’ll say this: Keep the sun to your back. Cloudy days are best. And if you’re lucky, there will come a time when a photograph will speak to you, wanting to be taken.’”

Pellegatta laughs. “It happened, and it still happens,” he says. “It’s like: ‘Yo, Ted. Over here.’ It’s almost like you become what you’re looking at.”

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Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 534 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.