The works of Robert Buelteman are sublime. The images are evidence of the artist’s hand and the unpredictability of electricity. The images are not digitally rendered, manipulated or enhanced but created entirely by hand. By collecting local flora, Buelteman introduces the specimens to the contained environment of his darkroom where the plants are shocked with electricity and are sparked with a new life. Through a meticulous dissection and exploration of his subjects, Buelteman contemplates the early days of photography and considers spirituality through nature.
“Let the Beauty of what we love be what we do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” -Rumi
Installation Magazine: Your practice employs a unique terminology. What is a “cameraless” photograph?
Robert Buelteman: I regard photography as the language of light. I have spent my entire adult life inquiring into the structure of this unique language, its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. To define my work, I opted for a descriptive term that is both accurate and provokes curiosity.
How did you define and develop your “cameraless” method?
It requires a more mature relationship with the concept of failure, as the likelihood of creating a portfolio quality image is nil on any given day. It took two years, working sixty hours a week, and over 3,000 sheets of 8×10 film to finish Through the Green Fuse, a collection of twenty five images named for the eponymous poem by Dylan Thomas.
There are two types of environments that your work operates in – one is the natural world and the other is the contained world that is your darkroom. How do the photographs engage with these environments?
My creative process begins in the field with the selection of a subject, after which I bring the living subject into the studio, where it is sculpted with surgical tools to manage its form and opacity. I then move into the darkroom to place the subject on an imaging easel to begin the transformation from living plant to art.
The flora appears to have been shocked or electrocuted and enlivened with an artificial life. What creates this effect?
In total darkness I build the exposure matrix on top of my easel. First, the 8×10 film is laid flat on the easel with the light-sensitive surface face up. Then the sculpted subject is placed on the film. The subject is then wired through a car battery jumper cable to a ground source.
The history of photography is deeply rooted in your methodology. How has the past informed the approach that you currently implement?
The origins of this technique are many and varied. In the 1830’s the English gentleman Fox Talbot made his Photogenic Drawings by placing plants on light-sensitive paper and leaving them under the sun. One decade later, Frenchman Daniel Colladon published his paper On the Reflections of a Ray of Light Inside a Parabolic Liquid Stream, which signaled the birth of fiber optic technology. These means of guiding light by internal refraction provided the tool for painting expressively with light. In 1939 it was Semyon and Alexandra Kirlian who recorded high-voltage electrical discharges on film in search of the aura they believed surrounded all living things. These pioneers and their research inspired me to pursue the beauty and wonder I see as a presence in all forms of life. The contact images are made the same way as Fox Talbot’s in the 1830’s, with the exception that I have super-sensitive color film instead of silver-salted paper, living plants instead of dried ones, fiber-optically delivered light instead of sunlight, and the Kirlian technique to add color and mystery to the resulting images. That said, all the equipment is built by hand, my hand.
Using an imaging easel it seems that you are painting with the light emitted from the electricity.
The actual process of imaging begins with the introduction of high frequency, high voltage (40-80 Kv, enough to fry any digital appliance), and electricity into the exposure matrix to create the ultraviolet aura of ionized gas that illuminates the subject’s energy field. Then a variety of visible light sources including xenon-strobe, tungsten, and fiber-optic light are used to hand paint the subject with light, which is then scattered through the diffusion screens, through the subject, and onto the film where the exposure energy is recorded. The easel is surrounded by a safety fence of wooden 2x4s to prevent electrocution, it is composed of a piece of aluminum sheet metal floating in a solution of liquid silicone, and is sandwiched between two sealed pieces of ⅛ inch acrylic sheet. In essence, these are paintings made with the energy of light and electricity using the living plant as both source and filter. The resulting image is a shadow of the life that left it.
Do the plant specimens in each series reference a specific geographic location?
Through the Green Fuse (1999-2002) – Plantlife from my garden and home locale
Sangré de Cristo (2004-2006) – The Sangré de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, where I was a guest of the Santa Fe Institute for three years.
Rancho Corral de Tierra (2002-2006) – Found plants from around my neighbor’s gardens in my home town of Montara on the Pacific Coast in Northern California, which is in the center of the historic Rancho Corral de Tierra Mexican Land Grant.
Life and Shadow (2010- present, unpublished) – Works made while battling Lyme Disease since 2007. During this time I’ve become disabled but was given three Winter Residencies at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, as well as being a guest at Stanford University’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. This collection contains plants from both locales, as well as my home garden.
While flowers and natural elements are a part of your work, they are a subject that acts as a vehicle to explore new processes and thus you resist falling into the traditional role of a landscape photographer. How do you relate to the flowers in your work and what journey has your creative process taken you on?
Often, flowers have been employed in visual art as a symbol of life and decay, as a kind of living reminder of mortality. Classical painters often included flowers as a way to convey immediacy, as a way to signal the temporal rootedness of the moment depicted and as a way to invoke spirituality. My odyssey from landscape photographer to whatever I might be now is a story that, while trivial, is instructive as to the creation of the works that constitute my current idiom. After twenty-five years immersed in that tradition, and three years working on my book, I elected to take yet one more road trip to explore both inner and outer landscapes, this time to the Southwest. On a stunningly clear night in the Arizona desert not far from the Mexican border, my carefully designed life was undone by a simple realization: My future would look like my past if I continued to follow the path I was on. In that moment out of time, I chose to cease using black and white film, cameras, lenses, and, as a means to simplify my creative options, computers as well.
In what ways is your process different than traditional photography?
The experience of making these images is as different from traditional photography as anything one might imagine. Using neither camera nor lens, my technique has more in common with Japanese ink brush painting and improvisational Jazz than it does with the current practices of photography. Each delivery of light, like every brush stroke or note played, is unrehearsed, and, once released, cannot be undone. In addition, whereas traditional black and white film photography has a total of 16 variables to manage, this system of imaging has over 50. With that many possibilities, this is a process that cannot be dominated, creating imagery that cannot be duplicated, even by myself.
You’re sensitive to the tradition of photography while employing variables such as voltage, and digital scanners. How do you maintain a sense of tradition while employing digital methods?
No other artistic medium owes more to technology and science than photography. Between the announcement of its invention in 1839 and the present digital moment the photograph has been many different things. For myself, all the excitement of the digital revolution can’t replace seeing the first light of day, or the experience of being connected to all that is. These are the qualities imbued in my photographs, and I have yet to find any digital tools that can replace my hands and heart. The rules are simple: Whatever appears on the color transparency or the BW negative is sacrosanct. That is why, after years of producing “perfect” images, these works are marked by their human creator with dirt, fingerprints, pollen, etc. This, to remind the viewer that art is made by human beings and as such, may show the imperfections of their authors. I make all my own prints, either here in my coastal studio, or, when my needs dictate, at a friend’s commercial color lab. All BW silver-gelatin prints are made optically here in my darkroom, and all color works are printed digitally on the Lightjet 5000 under my supervision. Only digitally rendered color prints can hold the intricate detail that makes these pieces what they are. This is the one area where the digital world shines.
What is the most common misconception about your cameraless work?
That the creation of these images involves digital imaging. Adobe Systems recently acquired a suite of these pieces for their boardroom, unaware that none of their products were used to make them. Unfortunately, I was the one that broke the news after they spent a good deal of money acquiring them from a private dealer.