Robert Buelteman uses high voltage photography
Forget the notion of a reverent nature photographer tiptoeing through the woods, camera slung over one shoulder, patiently looking for perfect light. 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.
Buelteman’s technique is an elaborate extension of Kirlian photography (a high-voltage photogram process popular in the late 1930s) and is considered so dangerous and laborious that no one else will attempt it-even if they could get through all the steps.
Buelteman begins by painstakingly whittling down flowers, leaves, sprigs, and twigs with a scalpel until they’re translucent. He then lays each specimen on color transparency film and, for a more detailed effect, covers it with a diffusion screen. 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.
Because there’s no lens to distort the colors, Buelteman’s work replicates natural hues far better than traditional photographs. “I’m calling into question what we see every day,” Buelteman says. “Is that really a flower? Have I been blind my entire life?” You can see for yourself in his recently published book, Signs of Life.