Photographer Robert Buelteman Will Force You to See the Natural Beauty Around Us

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"Russian River Oak" by Robert Buelteman  (Courtesy of Robert Buelteman )

Montara-based Robert Buelteman made his reputation with breathtaking black-and-white photographs of the Peninsula’s wild spaces. His photos have helped raise money for local environmental groups like the Peninsula Open Space Trust and the Sempervirens Fund and also the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

He’s enjoyed unparalleled access to San Francisco’s watershed, which is largely closed off from the public. But over more than two decades he got frustrated with the impact, or lack of impact, he felt his landscape photographs had on people.

“I would feel I had really reached to the other side of our experience to a purely spiritual rendering, and people would look at it and say, ‘Where did you take that picture?'”

As if by knowing the GPS coordinates, they could mentally file the visual away and call it a day. Buelteman wanted people to pay more attention — and feel something.

"Redwood Morning," by Robert Buelteman.
“Redwood Morning,” by Robert Buelteman. (Photo: Courtesy of Robert Buelteman)

“I had this idea of giving up the traditional tools. It started over a bottle of wine with Sarah Adams, Ansel’s granddaughter, who’s a friend of mine at her home up in Lee Vining. She showed me this collection of images made by Walter Chapell. I thought, ‘That’s something I’m going to do some day.'”


What Buelteman saw were Chapell’s Kirlian photographs, made with a technique named after Semyon Kirlian. In 1939, Kirlian discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is connected to a high-voltage source, an image is produced on that plate.

Buelteman wondered what would happen if he zapped wafer thin flowers and plant life with 80,000 volts of electricity in a darkroom. And then incorporated light painting with fiber optics. “It dawned on me that, if I combined the two, the high voltage discharge plus the light painting, using nature as a subject, I could make images that I had only dreamed of.”

“It really causes people to reexamine their their basic thoughts about what they’re seeing and the plants that are around us all the time,” he said.

"Fallen Lichen" by Robert Buelteman
“Fallen Lichen” by Robert Buelteman (Photo: Courtesy of Robert Buelteman)

Buelteman had a general idea when he began, but he had to figure out his own technique. “It took 3,000 sheets of [8 x 10″ sheet] film to finish the first 25 images. There’s no manual for this. It’s a trial and error process.” He plays about with a fiber optic probe smaller than a human hair. Some of that light pierces through the plant and onto the film, leaving the natural color, texture and structure of the plant.

An electric blue halo shimmers around the plants, the echo of ionizing gases, and pinpoints of light illuminate details like the veins running through leaves. “It’s really taking nature and reaching for an abstract interpretation,” said Buelteman, who began exhibiting his electrical prints in 2001.

The incandescent results do force you to focus in a way you simply don’t with most landscape photography. What you decide to do with your newfound respect for nature is up to you.

“I have had one singular motive since I picked up a camera and that was to elevate and celebrate the natural world. My goal being that, once people saw it through my eyes, they would act to preserve the biosphere.”

Biophilia: Painting with Light runs March 1 – April 15, 2019 at Art Ventures Gallery in Menlo Park. For more information, click here