Life In B&W

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

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.

“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.”

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