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.
The photographer’s camera setup, more or less a large lighttight box, is based around an extremely rare lens that’s capable of producing a gigantic image circle that he estimates to be 10 feet or more in diameter. Light-blocking black curtains hang from the rear to block the interior of the van, which is where he shoots from. Acting like a camera obscura in many ways, Ruhter is able to manipulate and focus a giant projection of the film plane forward and backward from within the van. He considers himself to be an organic piece of the camera, and he can move this projection backward and forward so he can accommodate differently sized wet plates that he has created at up to 48×60 inches in size. This is a record, as far as Ruhter knows, and he says that he’s hoping to break that record soon with a planned series of seven-foot portraits.
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 8×10 inches, 24×30 inches, 27×36 inches and 36×24 inches.
Most modern collodion photographers use ambrotypes: transparent glass plates with negative emulsions or positives on black-backed plates. While the equipment and chemicals are certainly secured for long-distance traveling, Ruhter predominately utilizes black aluminum metal plates instead, which are far more durable and even comparatively cost-effective, to a degree, as Ruhter is able to purchase large 4×8-foot sheets in bulk before cutting them down to the sizes he needs at a Los Angeles metal shop.
"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."
Ruhter estimates that the plates and materials average out at roughly $500 a plate. When asked how many exposures he’ll make for a scene, he says his average is two. "Sometimes it takes us five," he laughs, "but most of the time we get it on one. It takes quite a lot of time to set it up, and we usually sit in the camera and look at the image and make sure it’s right. We really take our time, and I think it pays on the back end where we’re not just shooting hundreds of images and hoping we get one. Because it takes so long to set up, it really slows you down and slows down the whole image-making process."
Executing a single exposure at a time really hones compositional abilities, as well, especially as the exposure on a wet-plate camera is made by manually removing the lens cap on a body that has no pentaprism or mirror system. So the composition must be perfected prior to exposure because you won’t be able to preview it after the plate has been doused in collodion and placed to the rear of the camera for an exposure. Different metals and glass backings can be used, and just as with film photography, wet plates can also be toned or dyed through various pigments for effects like sepia. Properly developed plates have rich, saturated contrast and grainless resolution thanks to the large dimensions of the glass plates or tintype negatives or positives. But even the most practiced photographers still experience a variety of aberrance in the development process, like light leaks or solarization effects.
This "flawed character" is one of the aspects that Ruhter finds the most pleasing about the wet-plate art form. He says that one of the reasons why he stopped working with digital is because of how easy it is to do image manipulations. He thinks that it’s our imperfections that make us beautiful, one of the many reasons why he’s such a successful portraitist.
The uniquely antiquated feel to the black-and-white images is especially jarring when modern subjects are the center of a scene. Ruhter’s series of homeless captured against the backdrop of the Los Angeles skyline, for example, are extremely jarring for their erroneous sense of time and place. The subject matter hints at a timeless problem, yet the men in his images push Vons’ shopping carts, and they’re dressed in modern-day clothing. It’s this juxtaposition of an antique process with modern-day scenarios that has made the collodion process so popular, but because of the limitations, there are also disadvantages that dissuade many from attempting the demanding and expensive art form.
The large wet plates need a lot of light, for example, as the collodion is only sensitive to blue light and the UV spectrum. Ruhter had to work out proper metering for the plates through trial and error, which was made all the more difficult when he decided to challenge himself by capturing fast action shots, something rarely attempted with wet plate. He shot a series on skateboarder Levi Brown, for example, who he was able to capture mid-ollie for clothing
company Foursquare Outerwear. This was no easy trick, when the demanding exposure times of wet plates often range from five seconds up to a few minutes. Ruhter estimates that he used 16 Pro-7 generators at full power with ProTwin heads, HMI lights and Magnum reflectors to finally realize the kind of light output he required. He triggered the flashes manually with a Profoto Air remote at the same time as he removed the lens cap with his other hand to expose the plate. "Right as I open it," he says, "I become the sync and I flash the heads."
The poisonous and flammable chemicals are also quite hazardous, and Ruhter wears a full hazmat suit with face mask and goggles while working through the darkroom process. Silver nitrate, for instance, can be blinding if it gets in your eyes. Collodion is a tactile, gummy solution made from pyroxylin, ether and alcohol that has been mixed with bromide and iodide salts. Ruhter has experimented quite a bit with the process, and he adds extra alcohol to thin down the mixture for the needs of his aluminum plates. It’s spread evenly to coat the wet plates before they’re dipped in the silver-nitrate solution to make the collodion mixture light-sensitive. The plates must be exposed, developed and fixed within five to seven minutes for most exposures because the solution will overdevelop the plates and cloud rapidly. As the plates dry, they also become less sensitive to light, so the exposure must be made quickly after coating the plates in collodion.
After the exposure is placed in a developer bath, a water rinse is soon followed by fixer, which removes excess silver nitrate that can fill in the exposure over time. The fixer is a solution of sodium or ammonium thiosulfate with glass plates or potassium cyanide when working with metal tintype plates like Ruhter’s. The plates must be rinsed once more, this time for an extended period of roughly 15 to 20 minutes before they’re dried on a rack or heated over open flame. Finally, heated varnish is coated evenly over the plate. Glass plates are generally dried overnight on a special rack and then revarnished and dried overnight once more.
Partly because of the van, but mostly because he’s willing to go the literal extra mile to make a project happen, one of the qualities that really sets Ruhter’s work apart from other wet-plate photographers is that he’s able to incorporate outdoor environments into a shot rather than the traditional portrait studio setups used by most of his peers. Recently, he has been following in the footsteps of famous master photographers like Carleton Watkins, and for the 100th anniversary of Yosemite, Ruhter made the trip to capture large-scale panoramas of the park. It was his first project with a brand-new camera setup. He’s also continuing work on his "American Dream Project," an ambitious series centering on interesting people he encounters as he travels cross-country in the van. So far, they have been able to travel as far as Vancouver and British Columbia.
"The concept," Ruhter says, "is that we really would like to travel through America and document the people and the land and kind of show the contrast between us as Americans. I feel like every country in the world and every culture, every religion, is in America. We all came from the outside, and we ended up here. So now we’re all living together, and sometimes it’s not perfect. It’s like a family: Sometimes you don’t get along with your cousins, but I believe that overall, family does care about each other."
As for his unique love of the wet plate, Ruhter is almost practical in his response: "With the wet plate, I just figured I can make my own film, and I really like that. When Polaroid went out of business, and they discontinued a bunch of the Kodak and Fuji films I liked, that’s what led me to this, in that if I made my own film, with photographic trends and everything as they come and go, I’ll always be able to continue making the photos the way I want. I won’t be dictated by a trend or new fad."
| Ian Ruhter took a class to learn the wet-plate process, and while the development process is very similar to standard film darkrooms, the element of cost makes trial and error with these plates an expensive proposition. Many of the chemicals are also dangerous, and the process itself is usually pretty messy. Ruhter says that anyone interested in collodion should take a workshop before they start. He suggests Will Dunniway (www.dunniway.com), Quinn Jacobson (studioq.com) and Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman (www.collodion.org). Mark Osterman and France Scully Osterman also wrote a manual called Basic Collodion Technique: Ambrotype & Tintype. Premade collodion solutions are available online as are developers, fixers and varnish.
Dedicated wet-plate cameras are available secondhand online, and there are also a number of companies offering modern or customized versions, which are often lighter and have more control over older cameras. Black Art Woodcraft, Star Camera Company and Guillory Cameras are a few of the more well-known companies making cameras currently. If searching for an older, less expensive model, popular camera brands include Century Studio, Ansco, Deardorff and Chamonix. For lenses, frequent choices are Dallmeyer, Dagor, Petzval portrait models, Cooke triplets, Plasmat lenses, Voigtländer Euryscop and Heliar lenses, and Kodak Ektar, Xenar and Tessar lenses. Wet-plate photography requires a lot of light, so look for the brightest aperture available.
You can see more of Ian Ruhter’s work at www.ianruhter.com.