Following Joseph Campbell, I also believe that the purpose of art is to “break windows through the walls of culture to visit eternity.”
This particular collection of images, titled Life and Shadow, is my fifth series of energetic photograms. Unlike my previous portfolios that were geographically based, this selection is intended to be an evolutionary unfolding of the creative journey that began in 1993 with First Light, my initiation into experiments with fiber-optic light.
The title of the exhibition is a nod to both the substance of the imagery as well as to my development of a life-changing disability – Neuroborreliosis (Central Nervous System Lyme Disease) – that has become an integral part of my art making. I was first diagnosed in 2007; it has taken me eight years to emerge from the shadow of this disease to present works both new and old.
Having passed this dreadful disease to my beloved wife as the result of being diagnosed too late, we both find that the life we had before is over. While the core values of my art remain true, their aesthetics are now conditioned by our loss of health and an ensuing wisdom borne of aging and decline. In this unforeseen journey we have found joy (Life) as well as learned how the dreams imagined in our youth can also betray us now (Shadow).
When faced with the immense task of expressing one’s relationship with the infinite, it is sometimes necessary to move in new and unknown ways to inquire more deeply into the mystery itself. These energetic photograms were created as both a new interpretation and a celebration of that most divine mystery: the nature and design of life.
In March of 1999 I became aware that the tools and traditions of photography had become limitations inhibiting my quest for self-expression. Many artists have turned to technology to provide additional tools in the belief that more options equates to greater freedom of expression. Instead, I turned towards simplicity, mindful craftsmanship, and the direct manipulation of photographic media as a means to that same end.
Using neither camera nor lens, my approach has more in common with Chinese ink brush painting and improvisational jazz than with the traditions of photography. Like every brush stroke or note played, each exposure to light and electricity cannot be rehearsed, and once delivered, cannot be undone. Even as a physically challenged person, the arduous process of imaging remains a spiritual practice, similar in many ways to my experience years ago as a healthy young man photographing the landscape surrounding my beloved home on the California coast.
The creative process begins with my selection of a subject. Then I bring the living subject into the studio, where I sculpt it with surgical tools to manage its opacity. The easel I work on is surrounded by a safety fence of wooden 2x4s to avoid electrocution, is composed of an 11×14” piece of aluminum sheet metal floated in a solution of liquid silicone, and sandwiched between two pieces of 1/8” thick Plexiglass which are sealed at the edges. An automotive spark plug cable is welded to the aluminum plate to deliver the 40,000-volt electrical pulse.
Once satisfied with aesthetic issues, I go into total darkness to build the exposure matrix on top of my electrode/easel. First, the 8×10” color transparency film is laid flat on the easel. Then the sculpted subject is placed on the film, sometimes with and sometimes without layers of diffusion material, which are laid on top when used. The subject is then wired to a grounding source with cable and clamp.
The actual process of imaging begins with the introduction of high frequency, high voltage electricity into the exposure matrix to create and define the ultraviolet aura that emanates from the subject. Then, I use a variety of light sources including xenon-strobe, tungsten, and fiber-optic light to illuminate the subject by hand so the light is scattered through the diffusion screens, through the subject, and onto the film where the exposure is recorded. In essence, I regard these as paintings made with the energy of visible light and electricity, using the living plant as both source and filter.
Editor’s note: To learn more about Robert and his work, and to see higher-resolution versions of these images, visit buelteman.com.