On The Road With Ian Ruhter

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.

Though his work is literally steeped in the antiquated process of wet-plate photography, Ruhter is no Luddite. “I worked as an editorial and commercial photographer for probably 15 years,” explains the self-designated alchemist, who now traverses the roads of the United States in a van he converted into a mobile camera obscura, complete with interior darkroom. “I was working with old film and then it was discontinued. I found the wet plate, and I figured I could make my own film and do it my way.”

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.

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