As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. If so, this space works out to 7/10ths of an Instagram shot. My words won’t convey the full impact of Ian Ruhter’s trend-defying photography, but at least they can point the way to his landscapes and portraits, and his upcoming visit to Vancouver in April.
Years ago, Ruhter saw the Los Angeles skyline draped in sunset, perfectly framed by his apartment window. What if he could make photographs on the scale of his view, he thought? Thought became deed, and in time Ruhter was barrelling across the U.S. with a crew of four in a powder blue truck, capturing scenes and people encountered along the way, using a process dating from the 1850s.
The back of the truck is outfitted with an aperture and lens, which allows Ruhter to focus light onto huge, silver-emulsion wet plates. In effect, Ruhter turned his vehicle into a giant box camera.
“If it was super easy, it wouldn’t be as fun,” he says in a call from his home base in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. “Whether you’re skiing or skateboarding, you want to keep progressing.”
Wrestling with unwieldy, Daguerreotype-like plates and chemicals on a truck-sized camera — which Ruhter describes as a “time machine”— certainly sounds like a challenge fit only for only for a stubborn artist or a pre-digital madman. Although he leaves as little as possible to chance — he says he will research a location or scene weeks to months before he arrives — serendipity and accident are always looking over his shoulder. Occasionally a picture will fail to develop properly, and at $500 a plate he and his road crew have a lot invested, in every sense of the word.
Ruhter is not interested in just making “big pictures for the sake of making big pictures,” or parsing the technical aspects of his work without reference to his personal journey. Suffering from severe dyslexia as a child, he discovered an avenue for communication with his first camera. Many of his recent portraits are of those on the margins of society, with struggles of their own.
“I had this crazy period in my life where I went to nine funerals in six years. And I’m talking about really close family and my best friend. I felt like I lost all the people who were close to me that I loved. For a long time I walked around with this shell around me. In building this project I realized I needed help, and it attracted all these wonderful people. And it’s like ‘oh wow, I’m actually building up a family again.’”
That “family” includes several people who are now part of his crew. “I think because I’ve been so open with my story, and it’s about following your dreams, people just want to help out... The Internet has been a really big key to what we’re doing and I think that’s why people gravitate toward it. It’s cool because were using an 1800s process, but using all the modern day technologies to further it.”
The photographer is not the “antidigital guy” many people expect to meet. “I believe in… not forgetting your past and embracing the future at the same time,” he observes. His photography project has grown to the point where “people can help us, but now we can actually help people. I really like that idea.”
The Lake Tahoe resident sees himself as an “alchemist,” which seems a pretty good description of a guy who juggles glass beakers, tricky chemicals and the fickle play of light in a truck. The medieval practice of alchemy has been dismissed as a misguided attempt to turn base metal into gold, but C.G. Jung turned that description on its head. The Swiss psychoanalyst believed it was more about spiritual transformation, with the raw material being the experimenter himself. Ruhter’s inner journey is explicit in his “silver and light” project, and when he says, “I pour my soul onto the plates,” I can believe it.
As a result of his passion, the photographer’s work has attracted global attention, from the Los Angeles Times to Wired magazine UK. He will be in Vancouver April 5 to 15, giving talks and demonstrations of his impressive photography. Details at silverandlightvancouver.com. Go to http://vimeo.com/39578584 for a must-see video.