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The PRO-Files: Photograph What You Love…But What If You Don’t Know What That Is?

When you speak to successful photographers across disciplines and ask them for secrets to their success, a recurring theme consistently appears. It’s so consistent, it seems cliché: Shoot what you love and success will come. By pursuing their passions, they say, their work excelled and eventually led them to personal and professional happiness and prosperity. But what about those who may be passionate and talented image-makers but perhaps don’t quite know what kind of photography they love? For photographers who are just starting to find their way from taking pictures as a passing hobby to being true enthusiasts, that’s a real thing. These photographers can learn from the great landscape photographer Robert Buelteman.

Everyone says ‘find your vision.’ This legendary landscape artist explains how to actually do it.

Buelteman is a fine art photographer who made his name crafting beautiful black and white landscape photographs in the style of Ansel Adams before moving to cameraless Kirlian photography. It’s a technique that requires practically death-defying efforts with high-voltage electricity and light painting to create surreal images of plants and flowers. It’s not exactly a popular discipline, but it became Buelteman’s passion and he followed it to success. It was a risky decision for an established photographer, but it wasn’t his first.

You see, Buelteman fell into the trap that many working photographers do. He was commercially successful yet unfulfilled. He began his career as an assignment photographer in San Francisco in the 1970s. Working for large corporate clients and advertising agencies, he was well paid to shoot the things other people wanted him to. By all outward appearances he was the picture of success. Inwardly, however, he was unfulfilled and unhappy.

“I’m not having any fun,” Buelteman told his colleague and mentor, Fred Lyon. “I've got all these great clients, I'm doing good work, I've got a good reputation but I'm not having any fun. Very pointedly Fred said, ‘I'll tell you why. When I met you, you were spending half your time making photographs for yourself. You don't make anything for yourself now. All you do is work for money. And that's worthwhile, but you know, you did not get into photography to do nothing but annual reports for multibillion-dollar corporations. You got into it because you loved making pictures for yourself.’ And I thought about that and he was just dead on. I was newly married, I was worried about supporting my new marriage and I kind of put everything else aside.”

“I'm sure many photographers,” Buelteman continues, “those who work a job and dream of making money in photography, they would imagine that getting paid for making photographs would be about as close to the ideal as you could imagine. And it has been. But it took me years of working with the camera to make an important distinction between the joy and the satisfaction gained from making photographs of the land that evoked a kind of beauty and reverence that was lacking in my personal life, making a distinction between that experience and getting a paycheck. To me that's the key.”

Just Doing It Can Be More Fulfilling Than Showing It

Tired of feeling like he was punching the clock Buelteman made a change. He refocused his career on the kind of work that was personally important to him as an artist. He followed his heart and developed his vision and it led to success, both personal and professional. He began making black and white landscape photographs in the San Francisco Peninsula Watershed. It was a subtle change, but essential.

“I decided that I would do that,” he says, “no big deal. I made over 10,000 exposures over a seven- or eight-year period of time, and nobody ever saw the work. Not my wife, who's my confidant and my coach. Not Fred Lyon, who’s my mentor. Nobody. I kept it completely personal. And in that I found tremendous fulfillment. Most of us, the first thing we do when we make a great photograph is, 'Hey, look at this! That belies a certain way of thinking about your work: that the purpose of the work is to impress other people. There's nothing wrong with impressing other people, but if you're an artist you've just shot yourself in the foot. Because you've got to, as an artist, listen to that silent inner longing, that voice that you know. And you have to heed it. And of course if you're working commercially, you’ve got to show that other work if you want to get that paycheck. So I did the work and I kept it completely private, and I had a really great time. It nurtured me, it reconnected me with all the things that mattered to me. And then at the end I thought, well, this is really a beautiful portfolio. This is legit. Not because somebody else liked it or anybody said something nice about it, for me. I was clear. I had done the work and the art had waited for me because I did the work.”

Buelteman’s advice for any photographer seeking direction is simple: do the work. “We have all these tools,” he explains. “Everybody's got a camera in their pocket. If they're serious about it, they have another camera too. There are all these options. We can filter anything we shoot, we can turn it into black and white, we can posterize it, solarize it, do anything we want. There are all these options, and the number one question I get is: 'I'm not sure what I want to shoot.' The question is how do you determine what your vision is? And the answer is, you shoot.”

“And on the days when the weather isn't right,” he continues, “you shoot. And when you're not feeling well and you decide that it's probably not worth your effort because everybody says it's impossible to be a commercial photographer in a day of ubiquitous photographic imagery, you go out and you shoot. And you shoot and you shoot and you shoot. And at some point—for the lucky among us a month or two in, for most of us a year or two in, and for those of us who take a little longer, maybe a decade later—it will become clear to you what it is that you're trying to express with your use of a camera. It takes time. It took me a long time.”

Zen & The Art Of Making Art

“There's a saying,” Buelteman adds. “I don't remember who first said it, but I'll say it now. 'Art waits for those who do the work.' A lot of people sit around thinking about it. They enjoy having dreams and visions… ‘Boy, if I can get a little ahead, I'm going to do this portfolio of heart shaped rocks that I've found on the seashore. Or exotic dogs. Or I'm going to travel the world and make these great travel photographs.’ And it's fine to have a vision, in fact it's critical, but that is no replacement for doing the work. Besides, if you do the work, the project will reveal itself and it won't take all that social engineering about, you know, how do I find a publisher and how do I do this and how do I get somebody to do that? You do it. You take it on. You shoot.”

When Buelteman first turned his attention to personal landscape work, he didn’t approach it as undertaking a project with a predetermined outcome. He simply followed his creative impulse wherever it led.

“It's funny how the mind works,” he says. “When that project ended up being a book, you look back and go, ‘I started working on my book.’ But I didn't start working on the book. What I returned to was my desire to create joy in my life from making a well-tuned photograph.”

He had done it. He had found success being true to his personal vision. Soon he was publishing books and selling prints, each propelling the other. It was all an artist could hope for—until it wasn’t.

“When you're successful at something,” Buelteman says, “people think, ‘oh boy, that's the living end.’ Well it is, but it also becomes a wonderful cage. I had become the black and white landscape photographer, and I developed this great approach where I could do anything I wanted, show it, sell the prints, demonstrate by print sales that the book was an obvious thing to do, and then the sale of the book would drive the print sales. It was a nice little capitalistic whirlwind.”

Are You The Next Someone Else Or The First You?

Things seems to be going very well indeed, but then, after a series of personal losses, Buelteman was driven to reevaluate his life’s purpose and creative direction again. “I came back from being on press in Italy for a book,” he says, “and as soon as I got back I loaded up my Volkswagen camper with everything that keeps us alive—food, wine, music and my camera and lenses—and I took off for the Sonoran desert with the idea that I would do a book about the Southwest. And while I was there I realized that I was just on the verge of turning my beloved fine art into something no different than annual reports and corporate advertising.”

“I went down there and was shooting like an assignment,” he says. “You know, when you're shooting like mad to get it done, versus being present and being aware of what you're doing as a self expression? And I wasn't having any fun. I'm doing the same thing that I had done previously, but this time I'm doing it like, 'oh, I figured out the riddle.' The riddle is, you make great photographs, you show the work, you find a publisher and then you get that nice little vortex making money. And when I was out after about five or six days, I said to myself, stop. Just stop. And I put the cameras away, took some hikes in the desert, drove around and thought about it. I thought okay, so who are you today? You're not who you were yesterday. You're not the same guy that feverishly packed his van for yet another photo project. Who are you? And not only that, the death of your young sister at the age of 40 and your young mother-in-law at 60, and your young mother at 72… Can you let that in? Can you let it in, how short life is? And again, speaking to myself in the privacy of my unconscious: You have always wanted to make your mark. You've always wanted to do something that is uniquely your work. And you know, every time I published a book, the question was always, 'What's it like being the next Ansel Adams?' And I would tell people, I don't want to be the next Ansel Adams. I want to be the first Robert Buelteman.”

“So sitting there in the desert one night,” he continues, “a gorgeous starry night in the Sonoran desert, I started thinking: ‘Well, what would you do if you were really as creative as you have led all these people to believe? What would you do if you were that person?’”

What he did was think back to an inspirational conversation he’d had years ago—with the granddaughter of Ansel Adams, in fact—when he was first introduced to the outlandish idea of Kirlian photography.

“What if I took high voltage electrical discharges and then hand painted the subject with a fiber optic probe?” Buelteman says matter of fact. “That night I went to sleep and I started having dreams of these brilliantly colored electric images. And when I woke up the next morning I was as excited as a child on Christmas. No sense of having to do anything, nothing. It was just, boy, that's really exciting, I'm going to look into that. So I shot 40 or 50 rolls of 120, and they are still sitting in numerical order in the file folder behind me. Because I came home, processed and proofed them, and then I put them away and embarked on my cameraless work. That was March of 1999.”

Anyone in their right mind would have tried to talk him out of it. Yet after nearly 20 years of going his own way, Buelteman and his singular vision have again proved right. “When people say, ‘I don't know what to shoot,’” he says, “I tell them if you shoot long enough, you will figure it out because it will be there for you to see. What would you shoot if that whole conversation in the back of your head about fame, fortune, money, paying the mortgage… If all that stuff wasn't there, and then you were in a vacuum and somebody handed you a camera, what would you choose? What would you choose to shoot? Because the only thing that carries you through is your passion. Look at great photographers—I must have well over 100 books in my library—Karl Blossfeldt, Imogen Cunningham, Joel-Peter Witkin, these are people who aren’t making photographs because it's a good idea. You look at somebody like Joel-Peter Witkin. This is not somebody who thought, ‘hey, being a fine art photographer would be kind of cool. And being the talk of the global art world for a few years, that'd be kinda nice.’ That's not how it happens. How it happens is this guy, with his mindset—whatever it is—is making these photographs. And at some point someone comes along and says, boy, those are wild. I've never seen anything like that.”

“That's where it comes from,” Buelteman says. “It comes from reflection, effort, work and fulfillment. And by fulfillment I'm not talking about winning the prize or getting the check. I'm talking about you looking at your work and saying, well done. I've got something here. This is important to me. That's the key.”

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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