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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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“What caused me to give up my background,” he explains, “was having a front-seat view of how short life is. Between 1996 and the year 2000, my wife and I lost four members of our family to cancer—her mother, her father, my mother and my younger sister, Lisa, at the age of 39.”

Sitting in the desert one night in the spring of 1999, after a week of intense photography not long after the death of his sister, Buelteman realized that the more he photographed, the more profound his feeling of despair. So he decided to quit. Right then and there, out in the field, he decided to stop doing the only thing he knew. He equates it to an alcoholic giving up drinking.


Describing what he’s trying to do with his photography, Buelteman explains, “There are those times when presented with vistas of great beauty or experiences of powerful importance, where the wall between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ disappears and you feel connected to everything that is. Those times when you’re either with or without a camera and you see something in nature—a sunrise, a sunset, that perfect light coming off the reflection of a river or a lake, where you just feel a profound connectedness—I’m a part of nature, and I’m self-aware and can see these things and can feel the connection. That experience is what virtually every photograph I’ve ever taken is aimed at. That sense of transcendence. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
“One night I thought, ‘Okay, rule number one, if what you’re doing doesn’t work, stop doing it,’” Buelteman says. “So I decided to stop shooting for a day and just think about what was going on. That was the time when I saw that the creative possibilities that were available through the black-and-white tradition, that I had been embedded in my entire adult life, I had largely used them up. Having seen my sister pass at the age of 39, it does make one think. I wondered ‘When is my number up?’ and, ‘Have I found my voice yet?’ The answer was both yes and no. I love the work I’ve done and will stand by it until the day I check out. But what else is there? What else is there for me to say? So that night in the desert, I thought the only way to find out is to make room in my life to rediscover this medium. And to that end, I gave up all the traditional tools that I use. I gave up using cameras, lenses, computers and black-and-white film—which were the four cornerstones of my art practice at that moment. That was it, that was my one and only voice.

“In fact,” he adds, “that entire body of work that I did that week down there is still sitting in chronological order in the darkroom, waiting to be printed 11 years later.”

Almost five years after abandoning the camera, Buelteman found himself traveling back and forth between his coastal home in Montara, Calif., just south of San Francisco, and a guest position at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Institute. He was there to focus on his “camera-less” work. But it’s no surprise what happens when a lifelong landscape photographer spends time traveling the desert. Sure enough, he felt the call to pick up the camera again, and so he did. Nothing serious—he worked with no agenda in mind, just having fun. But he still considered the possibilities of what may lie ahead.

Then he got sick.

Just as he was pondering a return to serious black-and-white landscape photography, Buelteman fell ill with Lyme Disease, the misdiagnosis of which left him incapable of many things beyond photography. Unable to do much of anything, he spent a full year of that time, “just lying in bed, crazy,” he says. “For a year and a half, I was housebound and couldn’t be left alone for my own safety. I couldn’t remember the names of my children, I was plagued by hallucinations and psychoses and had to take antipsychotic medication for three years, and I was a danger to myself and so on. I still have the disease and I’m sorry to say I have some serious neurological problems as a result. By this time tomorrow, I will have forgotten a great deal of what we’ve talked about today. That’s a polite way of saying that I have some brain damage that may or may not resolve itself over the coming years. But I’m doing better. This trip to the mountains was the first time that I’ve been let out of my home since 2007 on my own.”

After three years seemingly plucked out of time, last fall, Robert Buelteman returned to photography. He accepted a guest position at Stanford and decided to resume photographing the landscape yet again—whether or not he was ready.

“I’m currently a guest of Stanford University at the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve,” he says. “Imagine someone like me who shot thousands of rolls of film showing up with his Hasselblad and being unable to load the film magazines. That’s how confused I was when I started this last year. I now know how to load my magazines, and I’m making some new work. I continue to shoot on an occasional basis. I can work four hours a day now, which is wonderful—it’s huge compared to where I was.”

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