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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Life In B&W


Robert Buelteman is starting over, rediscovering the landscape he left long ago

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Robert Buelteman has experienced more than his share of life-changing events. Today, he’s recovering from years of ill health due to Lyme disease. He’s fortunate to be alive, much less making new and meaningful images, yet he continues to push his boundaries. Recently, Buelteman has been working with “camera-less” photography. It’s just one example
of how he seeks out new outlets for his creativity. His black-and-white landscape work defies being placed into narrow definitions of style. It’s always fresh and, it makes an emotional impact.
Robert Buelteman has published three award-winning books of black-and-white landscape photography. His 35-year career has included stints running a commercial studio and the serious exploration of “camera-less” image-making, but his first love has always been the black-and-white landscape. That’s why it was a surprise when he stopped taking pictures more than a decade ago. Perhaps more surprising is his decision to start again.

Buelteman left behind much when he ceased to be a landscape photographer. This was a man who felt he understood Ansel Adams’ Zone System so well that he thought it flawed. So he developed a better method, a more scientific approach to total mastery of black-and-white photography.

“I started off as an acolyte in the Western landscape tradition,” Buelteman explains. “Back when I started doing this, I was doing it the way I had been trained and the way everybody knew it should be done, which is to say using Ansel’s Zone System of very carefully exposed and placed values. In the years that I worked on this, I noticed that there were a number of real issues around the Zone System, issue number one being that it purports to be a scientifically based technique, but in fact, in my experience, there’s no real science in it. There’s a lot of testing and back-and-forth, but there’s no actual measurement and defined replication of results.

“It was around 1990 that I met Phil Davis of Beyond the Zone System fame,” Buelteman continues. “He said, ‘I’m not much of a photographer, but I really know film and paper.’ And I threw the Zone System overboard and I spent nine months or a year out of the field, in the darkroom with densitometers and all the papers I use and all the film chemistry, and I generated my entire data set that, to this day, I rely on in making my exposure, calculating my development and making my prints. I now have only one grade of paper in my darkroom because every single negative I shoot is printed on that one paper, which has allowed a technical consistency, but more important than that, a creative consistency, where I can see the values in the field before putting the camera on the tripod.

“I just came back from two weeks in the High Sierra,” Buelteman says, “and during that time, I think I maybe used my meter a couple of times a day. Once I got my sensibility dialed in to what the lighting values were, it allowed me to play without needing the sheet music. Now it’s a much more flexible thing, where I’m making my landscape exposures in ways I wouldn’t have before, but what’s allowed me to do it was developing a sense of mastery of the medium over the last 30 years.”

After years in the field and even more time refining his output in the darkroom, Buelteman decided to give it all up. Just like that, one day in 1999, he quit.

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