Sparking New Life into a Photography Career


Photography: Robert Buelteman

Every photographer has a different vision of success. For some, life would be perfect if Time Magazine were to send them and their camera bag to Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan. For others, sipping wine at a gallery opening while collectors battle to buy their art would be the ultimate sign that they’ve arrived. And for many, just being paid for a picture or winning a commission for a portrait would tell them that they’ve got talent, technique and an audience for their work.

But what happens next? What do you do after you’ve got used to phone calls from editors, when you’ve seen the red stickers on your framed photos or once sales and commissions have become a standard part of your life?

That was a dilemma faced by Robert Buelteman, a 51-year old landscape photographer known for his pictures of California. His black and white images had already been published in two books. His photos form part of the permanent collections of Yale University Art Museum and The Santa Barbara Museum of Art. And a steady supply of commercial assignments meant that he was able to earn a rewarding living from his camera.

Ansel Adams, Fiber Optics and Sculpted Plants

For most enthusiasts that would be the stuff that photography dreams are made of. But the death of a number of relatives and a desire for new challenges led Buelteman to look at a completely new way of creating pictures.

“It isn’t that I was running from dissatisfaction so much as I was seeking new possibilities for myself and for my art,” he explains. “As a witness to the loss of four family members to cancer in the late 90’s, I had learned that life is short, and didn’t want the precious gift that my life is to be spent doing what had already been done by so many so often.”

Twenty years earlier, Sarah Adams (the granddaughter of Ansel) had shown Buelteman Walter Chappell’s Metaflora portfolio of flower images at her home in Lee Vining. As he searched for a new outlet, Buelteman recalled that meeting and an idea he’d had about combining photography with fiber optics.

The result was a method that draws on his studies in chemistry, physics and optics at Berkeley to create a new kind of Kirlian photography, a technique that involves passing an electric current through an object on an a photographic plate to generate an image of the corona discharged around the object’s edges.

Buelteman’s approach though is particularly difficult. He takes live plants and “sculpts” them with a scalpel until they’re translucent. Working in the dark, he then prepares an “exposure matrix” made up a sheet of 8×10 tungsten-balanced transparency film mounted on an easel. This is supported by a sheet of metal in a solution of liquid silicone, which itself is sandwiched between two sheets of Plexiglas. To create the image, Buelteman connects to the metal sheet to a spark plug cable, places the sliver of plant material on the film, and fires 80,000 volts through the metal — and the plant. The current leaves a glow on the film in the shape of the plant. Finally, Buelteman uses strobe lights and fiber-optic cables to add extra light effects.

3,000 Exposures… 30 Images

It’s a process that can demand a great deal of time and experimentation. A single photograph can take anywhere from an hour to create to a number of months spread over several years. Calla lilies, for example, only bloom for a few weeks, creating a short window each year to get the picture of the plant right. The 30 images contained in Buelteman’s first portfolio “Through the Green Fuse” took 3,000 exposures and 60 hours a week for two years to produce.

“This is not a technique that one perfects,” Buelteman told us. “It reminds me of dancing.  Dancing is its own reward, and once you try to do it right, you’ve lost the rhythm.  This process, impossibly difficult with so many variables that it defies the traditional controls that we have come to expect as photographers, is a roll of the dice.”

The images though, shot without a camera and dependent on the corona created by the electrical charge are unique, and certainly very different to the traditional black and white photos Buelteman had produced in the past. The response though has been phenomenal. Galleries have snapped up his photos and the Santa Fe Institute invited him to be an artist-in-residence, giving Buelteman the freedom to continue developing his technique.

At the same time though, Buelteman has continued shooting and selling his black and white landscapes which he prints himself. Without those sales, he points out, he might “you know, have to get a job or something.” And creating the pictures helps to keep him grounded and engaged in his art, he says. It’s something he predicts he’ll never give up.

It would be wonderful to say that the moral of Buelteman’s story is that it’s always possible for a photographer to change direction, branch out into new areas and succeed. But of course, that isn’t the case. There was no guarantee that Buelteman’s technique would work, that any of the images he produced would be attractive or that anyone would want to look at them or own them. But that wasn’t the reason he did it. Being a successful photographer might be rewarding and satisfying but the thrill of success itself is never a reason anyone ever picks up a camera. That’s always done for the pleasure of creating pictures that make you proud. Buelteman himself notes the most important characteristic he looks at to measure the success of his technique isn’t the number of exhibitions, print sales or media  interest the images generate but his personal excitement and passion to continue doing it.

“When, as an artist, you have tapped into that special place where you no longer feel separate from the rest of life there is a spontaneity and a beauty and a rhythm in your art that others respond to,” he says. “While this is a place available to all of us, I find myself able to visit only occasionally.”

And, of course, if it turns out that people like your new images well enough to buy them as much as they like your old ones, then that really is the stuff of dreams.

2 comments for this post.

  1. Kate @ Photo Business Blog Said:

    Wow. What an intense and wonderfully complicated way to explore the craft.

  2. Dave Brown Said:

    Now that's putting work into your photography. I can't believe that someone would put that much effort into doing all that for a picture, but I guess I've never been bored after an amazing 30 year carreer.

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