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Re-mastering the darkroom

Slow photography pioneer unveils world's largest ambrotype

This ambrotype, a photo taken on a glass plate, was made in Bombay Beach, California, in 2017. The world's largest, it's called "Dream Home." It measures 66 by 90 inches and was taken in an abandoned home that was converted into a camera. (Photo by Ian Ruhter.)

Photographer Ian Ruhter is pretty stoked to be showing his work in Silicon Valley.

Yes, the area is home to titans of innovation like Elon Musk, whom he admires for out-of-the-box thinking. But the real kicker, he says, is that he'll be unveiling his own photographic achievements so near to where his real hero – 19th century photography pioneer Eadweard Muybridge – caught the first photos of a horse in motion in 1878 (after being spurred by a bet with Leland Stanford).

Roughly 139 years after Muybridge's achievement, and less than two miles from where Stanford's old race track was, Mr. Ruhter followed his hero's steps and unveiled on Feb. 1 something new in the old form of photography Muybridge used: the world's largest ambrotype, a 66-by-90-inch original photograph made on a giant glass plate.

In his work with the 19th-century photographic technique of wet plate collodion, Mr. Ruhter is doing for photography what Carlo Petrini did for food in launching the Slow Food movement – taking time, returning to the basics and getting things right.

"When I look at wet plate stuff, I look at the 19th century photographers. I don't look at them like, 'They're old, and they're doing old stuff.' They weren't," Mr. Ruhter reasons.

"They were on the forefront of art, science ... culture, exploration. They were pioneers going out into the West, photographing things. You could get killed very easily. I wanted to take from where they left off and push this thing forward, to take that spirit of science, art and exploration, and work to that capacity."

Chasing the 'one'

Growing up in South Lake Tahoe, Mr. Ruhter often felt out of place and angry. He was dyslexic and struggled in school. But all that changed when he enrolled in a photography class at Lake Tahoe Community College. There, he learned traditional photography, where he found home in the darkroom and a voice in the images he produced.

He began his career shooting snowboarders and action sports in Tahoe before moving to Los Angeles. There, he worked as a freelancer doing commercial and editorial photography, and his career began to blossom around the same time as the rise of the digital camera. And there was something unsettling to him about the changes he saw in the medium.

As with other technologies, he says, cameras and photo editing had become an arms race. "You're in this mindset that you have to keep upgrading and keeping up as the right thing thing to do, and photography was becoming that. And I personally didn't want that."

He said he fell in love with the concept of the "original." Digital cameras capture code, which is then converted into an image. "Even if you were to make one print of a digital image, it's still a copy," he says. "But I wanted the one."

The spark struck when he learned about an old photography method called "wet plate collodion" that would enable him to make his own film from scratch using raw materials. He and a buddy found instructions for the process online, and then ordered a field camera and the requisite chemicals.

Mr. Ruhter felt like a kid with a new chemistry set. "Immediately, it was like Christmas," he recalls. When he held his first completed plate, and saw the silver reflected in it, he explains, "It was like, my whole life, this is what I had been searching for."

Then, Mr. Ruhter was struck with a vision: to make giant window-sized photo plates far bigger than the standard 8-by-10-inch proportions of the 19th century camera he had. But that would require a camera that was much bigger than what he had, and it would need an on-site darkroom. None existed, so he decided to make his own.

Within a month, he had sold his belongings, left his Los Angeles loft to return to Tahoe, and bought a truck he planned to convert into both a darkroom and camera.

"It was a crazy leap of faith," he said. But, enamored with what this photographic method could offer – the ability to create a lasting, singular image reflecting the world that can't be altered after it is captured – he moved forward.

The process took about two years and cost about ten times more than he'd initially thought, he said. But eventually, with a crew of collaborators, his efforts began to yield stunning metal and glass plates bearing silver-infused images where the truck had been.

Each plate he produces is a labor of time and energy. The plates are often so large they have to be carried by more than one person as they are treated with chemicals to make them light sensitive. Then the film is loaded into the camera, exposed to the image, and fixed onto the plate.

The plates are expensive, and it's taken a fair amount of trial and error to master the technique. It often takes about a day to create an image, Mr. Ruhter said. But that's time he gets to spend with his team and his subjects, getting to know the people or the landscapes he shoots on an intimate level. Mr. Ruhter is often joined on his travels by photo technician and assistant Will Eichelberger and filmmaker Lauren Vance, who is working on a full-length documentary about him.

And while he speaks fondly of the time he's spent capturing landscapes in places like Tahoe, Yosemite and Monument Valley, Mr. Ruhter's eyes light up when he talks about his portrait projects: working with people who live on Skid Row in Los Angeles, transients in Vancouver and, most recently, residents of Slab City, an RV and homeless community in the California Badlands north of San Diego.

From the start of his foray into the wet-plate collodion process, turning a sensitive eye to all people – especially those in conditions of poverty – has been a focus for him. When he was first experimenting with smaller plates, he took his old-fashioned camera out to Skid Row. Because the camera was weird and interactive, the people he photographed were more engaged as subjects in the process, rather than as objects of snap-and-go digital photography. For Mr. Ruhter, it felt less exploitative and confrontational.

The camera itself sees things differently than he might, he says. "Things that you wouldn't search to go make a photo of (become) very pleasing and beautiful through that lens."

The camera has proven to be a collaborative tool that doesn't intimidate the subjects he seeks to photograph. "The camera in itself breaks down barriers," Mr. Ruhter says. "It gives me a voice, and in turn, I have the ability to give other people a voice."

Slow photography

The exhibit "Ian Ruhter – Perfect Imperfections: Contemporary Ambrotypes and Tintypes" is at Art Ventures Gallery at 888 Santa Cruz Ave. in Menlo Park through March 14. The gallery is open Tuesday and Wednesday, noon to 6 p.m.; and Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Art is also shown by appointment: 650-400-5325. Go to artventuresgallery.com for more information.

This story was first published Feb. 1 in The Six Fifty.

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