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.”