Continuing through March 28, 2020
The digital revolution has long since taken over the art of photography, but many artists have opted to stick with traditional darkroom materials, or devised hybrid methods of working. Among this latter group is the Bay Area nature photographer Robert Buelteman, whose long career encompasses silver-gelatin and a technique that he invented in the mid-1990s using a photogram setup (more on that later) to create transparencies which are then scanned and digitized to make color light-jet prints and black and white silver-selenium prints of stunning color and clarity. There is no digital legerdemain involved in these impossibly perfect, visionary photos of the analog world of nature.
Buelteman’s amazing plant portraits (in color and black and white) resemble the Kirlian photographs that made news in the U.S. during the 1970s. In 1939, Semyon Kirlian, a Soviet scientist, found that objects placed on charged photographic plates produced silhouetted images of themselves surrounded by radiant white auras — like the sun during electrical storms. Plants seemed to reveal their hidden life and energy, as ecstatic and radiant as any Van Gogh sunflower.
Taking plant cuttings from his hikes, Buelteman arranges his specimens carefully, sometimes using surgical scalpels to expose the hidden inner structures. His aluminum imaging easel, fitted with 8x10 color transparency film, and surrounded by insulating liquid silicone, and grounded to his home studio’s foundation, is charged through jumper cables with 40,000 volts of low-amperage, high-frequency, high-voltage electricity, which creates the blue corona-discharge aura surrounding the plant subjects. The artist, wearing insulated protective gear, works with diffusion screens and a variety of additional light sources (tungsten, xenon strobe, fiber optics) to ‘paint’ with other colors. Says Buelteman: “I regard these as paintings made with the energy of visible light and electricity, using the living plant as both source and filter.” While all this manipulation takes place in complete darkness, greatly enlarged photos such as “Nasturtium Blossoms,” “Citrus #34,” “Lupinous arboreus” and “Scatter-spined prickly poppy” reveal the secret, cosmic splendor of the ordinary.