Tuesday, June 10, 2014
On The Road With Ian Ruhter
Analog technology in the digital age: a mobile collodion darkroom and life-sized wet-plate camera
|This Article Features Photo Zoom|
Dating back to the 1850s, wet plate is also known as the collodion process, and a process it is, with single image exposures that require lengthy exposure times and a meticulous, demanding development and fixing process in a chemical darkroom. As time has become quite the luxury in the digital age, it's a very meditative style of photography that forces the photographer to slow down to perfect every composition, especially as the wet plates are costly and mistakes are easy to make. Another difficulty with wet-plate photography is that the plates must be developed immediately after exposure or the drying emulsion will fill in and overdevelop rapidly. So the darkroom must be very close at hand to the camera, which is very limiting for location work. This is why the majority of collodion images are taken in a studio or controlled environment. But there's an innovative photographer named Ian Ruhter who has worked his way around this problem by converting a bright powder-blue van into a mobile wet-plate workspace.
Ruhter can tilt and shift the lens like a view camera, but it's not a bellows system. "Because we can't move the truck forward and back into certain places," he explains, "we adjust the size of the plates we're using. It's the same equivalent of using a sensor. Say you have a full-frame sensor and APS-C, because of the crop, the lens actually zooms in. So, if we use a really large plate, we can be wider, and then we zoom in by making the plate smaller."
With very few in existence, Ruhter is secretive about the lens he has chosen to work with as he has seen it explode in price on the secondhand market since he first bought one. He admits that the most important factor for him, though, is the gigantic image circle, so he can work with a variety of plate sizes, most often at 8x10 inches, 24x30 inches, 27x36 inches and 36x24 inches.
"We haven't used the glass inside of the truck yet. I plan to, but glass is scary, because if we were to break one of those pieces and it wasn't tempered glass, it could really cut your foot off or something, you know? It's such a pain, too; you have to really clean the glass when you do the collodion. You have to clean it like you've never cleaned a piece of glass before. If you don't clean it really well, all that organic material, the collodion, will lift right off the plate. So you'll have a perfect image and then it starts peeling up, which is pretty heartbreaking."
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