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Exhibitions: A New Perspective on Nature, Courtesy of Lyme Disease

By David Schonauer   Wednesday March 20, 2019


Robert Buelteman understands the power of nature.

The San Francisco Bay Area-based artist has developed a unique cameraless method of photographing flowers, leaves, and other specimens collected from the world around him — so unique that his work attracted the attention of Wired magazine 10 year ago.

“Forget the notion of a reverent nature photographer tiptoeing through the woods, camera slung over one shoulder, patiently looking for perfect light,” noted the magazine. “Robert Buelteman works indoors in total darkness, forsaking cameras, lenses, and computers for jumper cables, fiber optics, and 80,000 volts of electricity. This bizarre union of Dr. Frankenstein and Georgia O'Keeffe spawns photos that seem to portray the life force of his subjects as the very process destroys them.”

Essentially, Buelteman’s technique is an elaborate extension of Kirlian photography — a high-voltage photogram process popular in the late 1930s, noted Wired: He places an object on color transparency film and covers it with a diffusion screen. Here is how Wired described the rest of the process:

This assemblage is placed on his "easel"—a piece of sheet metal sandwiched between Plexiglas, floating in liquid silicone. Buelteman hits everything with an electric pulse and the electrons do a dance as they leap from the sheet metal, through the silicone and the plant (and hopefully not through him), while heading back out the jumper cables. In that moment, the gas surrounding the subject is ionized, leaving behind ethereal coronas. He then hand-paints the result with white light shining through an optical fiber the width of a human hair, a process so tricky each image can take up to 150 attempts.

The results are both extraordinarily beautiful and perhaps a bit unsettling. "I'm calling into question what we see every day," Buelteman said. "Is that really a flower? Have I been blind my entire life?"

Golden Columbine

Alstroemeria

Cannabis sativa

The article about Buelteman in Wired coincided with the publication of his book “Signs of Life.” Now the photographer’s work is on view at the Art Ventures gallery in Menlo Park, CA — “the heart of the Silicon Valley,” he notes. The exhibition (though April 15) represent a comeback of sorts for Buelteman, whose career was waylaid by Lyme disease.

It was in 2007, after many misdiagnoses, that Buelteman finally learned he was infected with Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Q Fever, and Ehrlichiosis. The effects of his illness left him disabled.

“I don’t know when I was bitten by the tick that changed my life,” Buelteman told the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

“[A]fter a couple years of mysteriously declining health, I knew something was very wrong,” he said. “I no longer knew what to say, nor could I understand what was happening to me. With the stress that accompanied the near-fatal car crash of my oldest son on his way home for Christmas, I spiraled in. My once-stable relationship with the world, my family, my art, and my dreams seemed to dissolve as I fell ill and seemed unable to find a doctor who could help me.”

He carefully guarded the truth about the extent of his disability. “Beginning in 2008, I sometimes couldn’t remember the names of my sons, couldn’t be left home alone, could no longer drive a car, remembered little day-to-day, and couldn’t distinguish between what was happening on the TV and what was happening in real life,” he noted. “I lived in fear I had lost my mind, and, at that time, I had.”

The treatment for the condition — years of being “saturated, injected, and infused with every manner of antibiotic” – left Buelteman’s immune system severely compromised, making him susceptible to “every passing bug that wouldn’t have stood a chance against my former vital self,” he noted.

Black Oak

Field Mustard

Bougainvillea

Today, Buelteman is free from infection. “While I remain disabled, I have made a few new images,” he says. “I’m hoping to get my feet back on the ground in the art world – we’ll see if my work still appeals!”

The Lyme disease that afflicted him also provided him with a lesson about nature and life. As he told the Lyme Foundation, “I have learned the destinations we dream of in health can betray us in sickness, and that in the end, it is the journey that matters.”
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At top: Eucalyptus polyanthemos, by Robert Buelteman

1 Comments

  1. Douglas Hooper commented on: November 1, 2019 at 4:38 a.m.
    This art is really beautiful. I admire Robert's work.

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