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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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Buelteman is quick to say that neither is he back to full speed nor is everything fine, but he’s making continual progress. And whatever changes in his process, he’ll continue shooting black-and-white in the tradition he has always loved.

“I don’t believe there’s anything more powerful than the human imagination,” Buelteman explains. “I’ve had a lot of arguments about it and I don’t want to make the claim that I have it figured out and this is right because there’s beautiful color landscape work; but for me, black-and-white is the literature from which the book is created in the mind of the viewer. They look and they see those simple shades of gray and they can generate on their own: Is it winter or is it spring? Is that the birth of the moment or is that the death of the moment? What is it that I’m seeing? To me, that’s the fundamental quality that black-and-white imagery has, that it will always have, over color—whether it’s digital, analog or whatever. I think that great photography, like great literature, is an open door, not a definition.”

He’s reluctant to identify how his new mind-set may manifest in his work, but Buelteman knows for certain how that new philosophy fits into his life.

“Most of what I see is the transitory nature of things,” he says. “I used to be very interested in the grand vista, a kind of Ansel Adamsy ‘man and the mountain’—the grandeur, the strength, the power, the intensity. That’s kind of how it showed up for me 30 years ago. It shows up very differently now. Whatever is here will be gone, some of it soon and some of it not so soon, but it will be gone. That means everything. Your health, your loved ones, suffering, all these things come and go. I’ve found that I’m much more interested in the transitory nature of things.

“You spend three years present to the fact that we’re all just a big bag of protoplasm waiting for either the grave or illness or who knows what else,” Buelteman says. “Life is unpredictable. My world is so different that words can’t express just how very different it is now. I wake up grateful every day.”

Robert Buelteman's Exposure And Processing System

What I do in any environment I arrive in,” explains black-and-white master Robert Buelteman, “I look at the illuminance in the shadows and what the illuminance in the high values are, I determine what zone, or how many stops there are, between highlight and shadow values, and I make the exposures of that given scene on whichever film is going to be processed to match my paper grade.

“The normal illuminance scene,” he continues, “the standard on which Fuji and Kodak and everybody else base their films, is seven stops—highlight to shadow. Here on the coast on a gray day, it can be zero stops. It can be the same value under a tree as it is on top of the tree. Up in the Sierra, I had 9- to 11-stop ranges when I was at 10,000 feet. You get up there, and the shadows are so deep and the sky is so brilliant, so I have film magazines that are loaded for 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 stops, all labeled; and in any given environment, all I do is determine what the contrast range is, I make the exposure on the appropriate film, and then come back here and process that film based on my database.

“So in other words,” Buelteman says, “a 7-stop range gets processed for 7 minutes 15 seconds, 8 stops goes in for 6 minutes, 5 stops goes in for 9 minutes. That way, when I have a negative, no matter what the subject was, it will print to perfection on the same paper, the same developer, and that gives me control over the entire process, capture to printing.”

To see more of Robert Buelteman’s work, visit www.buelteman.com.


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