© NOAH WEBB
Ian Ruhter (right) and his assistant Trevor Ricioli (left) with the photo truck.
As developed in the 1850s, wet-plate collodion photography involved pouring a solution of bromide, iodide, or chloride onto a glass plate, activating the chemicals by dipping the plate into a silver nitrate solution, then quickly exposing and developing it before the chemicals dried, for a luminous, positive image.
For most of us, the technique remains firmly relegated, along with the daguerrotype, to photo history, an unwieldy process made obsolete by easier, more portable technologies. But for Ian Ruhter, who cut his commercial teeth shooting skate- and snowboarders, the antiquated process has become a means of retreating from those very advances, getting his hands dirty, and reclaiming his voice.
“When I found photography,” says Ruhter, who struggled with dyslexia as a kid, “it was like I found my voice. I got pretty good at it, and people wanted to hire me, and then my voice became the client’s voice. I lost the thing that I found.”
A long search led him to the process, which he found a welcome alternative to the digital that’s now beau ideal. He started experimenting with 8 x 10” images, but the real revelation came after seeing the city of Los Angeles, where he was living at the time, framed in a gigantic window. “I knew at that moment that I was going to make original wet plates in a size that one could only dream of,” he says.
Soon Ruhter had moved back to his native Lake Tahoe and was pouring his time and savings into realizing this vision, overcoming the biggest obstacle—finding a large enough camera—by creating his own, out of a delivery-style van.
The truck serves as both gigantic camera and mobile darkroom. To create an image, Ruhter and his assistants point the back of the van toward the intended subject with the doors open wide, hang light-blocking curtains and set up the lens, prep and hang the plate inside, and, sitting in the van, manually move the plate forward and back until the desired focus is achieved. Exposure times hover around three seconds, and the plate must be developed before the chemicals dry, giving the entire process a window of about 20 minutes, depending on the heat and humidity outside.
Ruhter works mostly at 27 x 36”, although he’s achieved up to 48 x 60”, and estimates that each image costs about $500, thanks largely to the high cost of silver. But the effect is priceless. “The silver used in this process,” Ruhter writes in his artist statement, “reflects light in a way that no other film or digital process can.”
Top: Ruhter's wet-plate collodion photograph of the LA River and bridges.
Bottom: Ruhter stands in front of his subject holding a plate. Each image costs about $500 due to the high cost of silver.
Even in reproduction, Ruhter’s images jump off the page (or screen), with rich, intense silver tones, an unmistakable nostalgia, and a kind of gravitas not easily created digitally. Watery developer burns and black scar-like markings where the chemicals didn’t go on evenly call out the handcraftedness of each image, and reestablish photography as an alchemical way to “paint with light.”
With the long exposures and high detail, the method’s especially suited to landscape, and Ruhter’s created beautiful ones. With these, though, there’s little to differentiate them from their 19th century forbear. Much more interesting are his portraits, created thanks in large part to Pro Foto, which provided Ruhter with the necessary lights, as these combine the old fashioned aesthetic with contemporary subject matter.
With so many variables, failure seems unavoidable, but Ruhter says “sometimes the flaws and the mistakes are something you want,” and even encourages them. After all, it’s the trace of human hands that makes the antiquated, manual process everything digital’s not. That, and the deliberation behind each image. “We’ll sit in the camera and look at the image for an hour,” says Ruhter, just experimenting with focus and framing. “With digital, it seems like you fire at will, and at the end of the day, you hope you got one out of all those frames. With this, you set up and set up, and then you know you have it. You just have to make it work.”
For more on Ian Ruhter, visit www.ianruhter.com.