Art can take us to places we have never been and places we cannot access. Stanford University's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve has been closed to the public since the pandemic began, but even before that, one could only enter the 1,193-acre haven for research and education via a docent-led tour. Thanks to the work of Montara-based photographer Robert Buelteman, we can vicariously enjoy the unique flora and fauna of this protected region. Art Ventures Gallery in Menlo Park is featuring an exhibition of Buelteman's black-and-white and chromogenic prints taken at the Preserve from 2010 to 2014. "Chasing the Light at Stanford's Jasper Ridge" will be on view until March 31.
Buelteman, who grew up in Woodside, explained how he was allowed to work in the restricted area.
"I asked for the privilege of access to this unique land, as it was a place I frequented as a child." Growing up, he enjoyed family field trips to the Searsville Lake recreational area. In 1973, the University formally designated the area as a biological preserve and ended the public's recreational use. The executive director of the preserve, Philippe Cohen (now retired) was familiar with Buelteman's work in documenting the wild lands around the Crystal Springs Reservoir. He said, "I felt strongly that artists and scientists were engaged in similar endeavors: discovery and finding connections. I had always gotten the sense that discovery was an important component of Rob's work and that it could help communicate the importance of the preserve."
Visitors to the exhibition will note that there are two very distinctive styles of photographic process on display. There are 15 prints that utilize a traditional gelatin silver process (think Ansel Adams and Edward Weston). These works, of trees, fog over the lake and morning mist in meadows, are quiet, evocative studies of natural, undisturbed beauty. In "Spring Willows," the emerging new buds light up the branches of this venerable tree, while in "Jasper Morning," tendril-like tree branches kiss the ground before rising to take in the sun's rays. Buelteman explained that he has two audiences for his work: collectors of fine art photography (like these black-and-white prints) and those who are more drawn to the works in the other half of the show — the unique, cameraless prints. A look back at Buelteman's evolution as an artist is helpful in understanding these pieces.
He began in the early 1970s as a commercial photographer, focusing on restaurant and corporate work. His success in this arena allowed him to explore more artistic endeavors, using black-and-white film. His landscape work also met with success and he continued in this style until 1999, when a visit to the Arizona desert resulted in an epiphany — he needed a change of working method. Having studied science in college (physics of light, optics and chemistry) he was familiar with early efforts at capturing images that required just paper and light. He had also been introduced to the work of Russian scientists Semyon and Valentina Kirlian, pioneers whose visionary photographs used an electrical discharge process. Buelteman decided a return to basics — cameraless, lensless, computerless photography — would be his new endeavor, with a twist of his own.
The process is complex and dangerous. Currents are sent through objects that rest directly on a photographic plate. Buelteman had to construct a large sheet metal easel that is floated in a solution of liquid silicone. He also devised a way to add light sources to the process, in the form of xenon strobe, tungsten and fiber optics.
"When the correct voltage, frequency and polarity and duration are used, it generates a straight Kirlian photograph: a black sheet of film with ultraviolet tracings," he said. "I then introduce the natural color and texture of the plant onto the film by passing light through it."
He must work in the dark, relying on touch and with high-voltage electrical pulses. He has been shocked while working but explained, "I wanted to explore the outer limits of my medium and avoid the digital tsunami. These images, made where the subject is incorporated both as subject and filter for the light that makes the exposure, was exciting for the challenge (3,000 sheets of film to make the first 25 images) and for the fact that the process consumes the subject, making traditional reshoots impossible. And yes, 80,000 volts is dangerous but I survived the injuries sustained in the process."
The results of this "Buelteman method," which he says no one else is doing, are stunning. Familiar flora like bougainvillea, black oak and buckeye become transcendent with light and color. It is as though the natural beauty of a leaf or petal has been electrified, emitting a glow or aura not seen by the naked eye, as can be seen in "Buckeye Cluster." The colors in these prints are iridescent blues, greens and reds; the effect is ethereal.
Whether the viewer truly understands his process is not important to the artist.
"For myself, the work is the same vision — one that celebrates the natural world and the biophilia that is my inspiration."
And like the fleeting quality of the natural world, Buelteman's unique technique also has an end point. "The film that can record these images is no longer available, with the exception of the 300 sheets in my freezer, so I will be moving on. After all, life is just an exploration, isn't it?"
Luckily, exhibitions such as this and the artist's monographs will allow us to enjoy his images in perpetuity and support his passion, and hope, for the future of our environment. The current executive director of Jasper Ridge, Anthony Barnosky, commented, "A huge part of our mission is communicating why we people need nature and how we interact with it. Exhibitions such as Rob's tell that story better than words."
Art Ventures Gallery is located at 888 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park. More information is available at artventuresgallery.com.
Contributing Writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at [email protected]