Is there anything photography can tell us about flowers and plants that we don’t already know from the likes of Karl Blossfeldt, Edward Weston and Robert Mapplethorpe? Actually, quite a bit as Robert Buelteman demonstrated in A Matter of Scale, his second exposition of large-scale prints at Spur Projects, an ambitious gallery in the rural, mid-peninsula enclave of Portola Valley, south of San Francisco.
A Bay Area environmentalist who for years has been the principal photographer for a variety of California land trust groups, Buelteman, in 1999, diverged from the Ansel Adams-influenced f/64 path to explore Kirlian photography, a camera-less form of image making that relies on the application of high voltages to subjects on light-sensitive media. The process, invented in 1939, is akin to a photogram, but different in that the charge illuminates a subject rather than rendering it opaque. The technique was revived most prominently by Walter Chappell in his groundbreaking 1974 Metaflora series. Buelteman, with a battery of self-invented techniques, picks up where Chappell left off; and the results, first seen in his highly regarded 2001 portfolio Through the Green Fuse, continue to astonish. The 18 pictures on view here radiate an otherworldly iridescence that amplifies and accentuates not only the native colors and shapes of each flower, shrub or tree, but also a distinct aura – an artifact of both the Kirlian process and of Buelteman’s judicious application of “light painting” to expose flora ranging from oak leaves and alstroemerias to pot plants and dandelions.
Cynics who are temperamentally or ideological opposed to beauty have dismissed Buelteman’s method as a schtick and his pictures as eye candy, which they surely are. But to criticize Buelteman on that basis is a like denigrating Sebastiao Salgado for being a humanist. With the rigor of a botanist, Buelteman does to flowers what August Sander did to people: he categorically demonstrates the individuality of plants in ways that make you look at them in whole new light.
As for science, Buelteman proves nothing other than the fact that water conducts electricity. But if, per chance, you wanted to consider 17th century physicist’s Robert Fludd’s theory – that every plant is related to a distant star – Buelteman’s experiments provide plenty of food for mystical thought which, as it happens, was one of the byproducts of Kirlian photography at its inception.