The Making of ‘The Unseen Peninsula’

A celebrated photographer reflects on the life that led to his first book, which captures a secret paradise in the heart of the San Francisco Peninsula.

PUBLISHED APR 28, 2024 9:30 P.M.
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This image, titled 'Montara Mountain,' was used on the cover of 'The Unseen Peninsula.'

This image, titled 'Montara Mountain,' was used on the cover of 'The Unseen Peninsula.'


My family moved to the small town of Woodside on the San Francisco Peninsula in 1954, a few weeks after I was born. My Florida-born mother was mortified, telling her sister “This town has dirt roads!”

From my bedroom I could see across the San Andreas Valley to the redwood groves covering the eastern flanks of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and north to the watershed of the Crystal Springs Reservoir. As the son of a Michigander outdoorsman, I was 7 or 8 years old, I asked him to take me to see the lakes on the watershed and he told me no one is allowed on that land as it is the source of our drinking water. While that wasn’t exactly true, he lit the lifelong fire that burned in me to get on that property.

A few years later we were to learn that a new Interstate freeway, I-280, would be built and run through our backyard. Worse, its course would take out the lake and forest I had played in my whole short life—my forest. This was a place that I could go to be alone with my thoughts, and it seemed to be a wild place, even though it wasn’t. My favorite thing about it were the turtles that I shared the lake with. And just a few years ago I was delighted to discover a pond with turtles in the shadow of the freeway!

We soon moved across town, but the scar of losing my special place never healed, and since that time I have devoted myself to protecting the neighboring forests.  My photographs have been used as key tools in the preservation of over 140,000 acres of land from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, representing land at risk as worthy of our protection. I have found that you can ride your passion to extraordinary opportunities. I first worked for Sempervirens Fund, and later for the Peninsula Open Space Trust. These assignments allowed access to lands on the Peninsula that were private and closed to the public, giving me a deeper understanding of this land I call home.

In 1983 I returned to Woodside with my new wife after a brief period in Newport Beach, where my photographic mural business had drawn me. I immediately began reaching out to the San Francisco Water Department to gain access to their San Francisco State Fish and Game Refuge, the 24,000-acre property I dreamed of as a child. The answer was an emphatic no, especially given that I was a landscape photographer whose exposure of the land to the public eye was antithetical to the goals of the Water Department.

Through a series of fortuitous connections, I was finally able to get a permit–for one day. I explained I needed more access, and they offered to renew the permit, again, for one day. After seeing me every morning for a week or so, the secretary grew tired of the process and upped it to a week. Eventually, a week became a month, a month became a year, and 10 years later, my iconic book, The Unseen Peninsula, was published. It marked the fulfillment of a child’s dream, who was weaned on National Geographic and a host of Sierra Club books. It also resulted in my art being embraced by the creative community and led to the development of more dreams yet to be realized. 


In 1996 it would lead to my being a guest in our nation’s capital of Poet Laureate Robert Hass at the national Watershed event, a gathering of writers celebrating nature and community. One of my images was selected for the tickets and posters promoting the week-long event. To see my name on the same page as Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Bill Kittredge, Peter Matthiessen, Gary Snyder and Terry Tempest Williams was one of the great honors of my life.

Robert Buelteman has been making photographs for nearly five decades, and has been honored with more than a dozen artist residencies including the Santa Fe Institute, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and Stanford University.

“The Unseen Peninsula” was awarded a gold medal by the Natural Resources Defense Council and a silver medal by the Commonwealth Club of California. Buelteman received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition from the United States Congress.

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