reFramed: In conversation with Ian Ruhter
“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice
Editor’s note: Photographer Ian Ruhter spoke with Framework recently about his ambitious, as well as arduous, “Silver and Light” project to tell the stories of people across America through mediums including wet plate photography. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
“I’ve always seen the world differently so I built a camera to share images the way I see them in my mind.… Growing up I had severe dyslexia and it was always hard to communicate – when I found photography I found my voice.” –Ian Ruhter
Q: How did you get started in photography?
A: I got into snowboarding because I was raised in Lake Tahoe, and I got pretty good at it, so I was able to get sponsored. Magazine photographers would visit to take pictures of me snowboarding, and I would ask them all kinds of questions about their photography — what kind of camera they used, how they worked … and that interest always stuck with me. One day I decided I wanted to give photography a shot.
I never went to school for photography, but all those years of shooting snowboarders and working on catalog photography, I felt like that was my schooling. I got to a point in my life where I wanted to see what I could do as a photographer — not only what the client wanted me to do — so I just really took a chance on myself and thought, “I’m going to try something really crazy and do what I feel is in my heart.” So I gave up my full-time job to do the photography.
Q: What inspired the “Silver and Light” project?
A: When I initially started in photography, I thought this was going to be a cool hobby, and then very quickly I found out it was way more powerful than just the act of taking pictures. I thought, “I’m communicating my feelings and who I am through these images.” At that moment, I thought, “I have a voice now,” and that feeling never left me. But somewhere along the way, after working nonstop, I lost my way a little bit –“Silver and Light” is about me going back to that beginning and trying to regain that feeling. Maybe you have to take a step back once in a while before you can go forward. “Silver and Light” is a passion project. It allows me to do whatever I want, and that’s what I really like about it.
Q: How do you decide who you are going to photograph for the project?
A: I’m photographing people who are telling my story. I have a fear that if I spend all my money on this project, I’m going to be homeless. So I photographed Andrew Johnson, who lives on skid row in L.A. And actress Mariel Gomsrud, she speaks about death in our “American Dream” video, and I’ve had nine people die in 5 years. I picked Oscar Loreto, who was born with a congenital birth defect, because I have dyslexia. I was inspired by Jason Wilson, the biker, because he builds everything with his hands the same way we created our camera. So the people I photograph are not as random as it may appear. I see a little piece of myself in everyone I photograph and vice versa.
I’d also like to go all the way from, say, photographing our president to photographing a farmer in Kansas City to taking pictures of inner-city kids. I want to cover all of America in the spirit of the pioneer photographers like Eadweard Muybridge, Carleton Watkins and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, and then I want to modernize it. I talk about America so much, and I think sometimes that turns people off. But I believe America is … the world — because everyone from around the world has ended up here. In Los Angeles, you can experience every country in the world if you just drive around. You can see the flavor of Mexico, Armenia, Africa, Egypt, Tokyo. I look at America, and I think it’s more about the world. We first shot with the camera in L.A. so our project had to begin there — where the idea of the project was born. We’re also really fascinated with filming our journey. And when we finish the project, we are going to make a documentary film about America, and it will reflect the world … For now, we’ve released two short videos about our project: “Silver and Light” and “The American Dream.”
Q: Why a wet plate camera in a truck?
A: I started making 8-by-10 wet plates of people living in and around my apartment building at 6th and Los Angeles streets. Once I made the images, I wanted to see them larger. So, I thought about scanning the wet plates, which would essentially create a copy of the original image, and that idea of a copy created a dilemma for me. A few weeks went by, and I was sitting on my couch looking out my huge apartment window at the skyline. The light was perfect and it looked like a great big picture … so, I thought, I’m going to make original wet plates that are as big as this window, and that inspired me to make the camera.
Originally, I made a portable darkroom on wheels out of a cart, and I used to take it through skid row, not far from where I lived, and make pictures of people on the street. We’d set up the camera on the street, and people that I’d be really intimidated to talk to or wouldn’t have anything in common with would walk right up to us and ask questions about the camera. I asked them if they’d like to make a photo, and they’d say yeah. It was the camera that actually brought us together. I definitely have deep connections to skid row because I was right there every day, and I’d get a lot of inspiration just from walking around taking pictures with my Polaroid or 8-by-10 camera.
Q: How did you make the camera?
A: The really important part was finding the lens — I didn’t know if they existed. I found it on EBay, so I saw that as a sign that I should build [the camera]. What I hadn’t anticipated was building out the rest of the camera, with the darkroom and all the elements working as one… and I got really stumped. So I made drawing after drawing and made prototypes and models out of wood, and I still couldn’t figure out the missing piece to make it work. And then one day, I had this realization that I was going to have to become part of the camera to make it work. … It wasn’t going to be 100% mechanical. I was going to have to physically move some of the pieces so I would become a part of the camera, and that was really cool. I make the picture and develop it, and fix it, and wash it all in the truck. I really love working with my hands, so it fits me. I’m using the same recipe that was used in the 1800s to develop wet plates so the images will last.
Q: Making wet plate photographs you’re probably never exactly sure of the image you’ll end up with? Do you embrace that as part of the creative process?
A: We embrace the mistakes, and they become a part of the originals. There is control, to an extent. Like I’m in control of the process, but we also hope for the uncertainty of it too. In other mediums of photography – digital, say — you don’t want that uncertainty. But we kind of hope for it with this project.
Q: It’s probably a little too labor intensive for you to stop along the highway on a whim, so does it have to be a pretty striking image for you to pull over and make a picture?
A: Yes, it does.… That’s why, slowly, I want to start integrating the use of Polaroids into our project and … make a direct positive paper that will allow us to make images faster if we choose not to use our two-hour setup. I think we can make really large Polaroids — and extremely large direct positive images – from the truck. I also like shooting with my 8-by-10 camera, and 8-by-10 Polaroids, so when we get a little more organized we can start integrating more of these pieces into the project.
Q: Your project is expensive to operate and produce. Are you getting any corporate sponsorship?
A: Slowly, we are. We haven’t been given cash, but Profoto has been a really big supporter to us and has given us $50,000 worth of lights. Other people have given us material so that is helping us out too. Our plan is to travel with the truck across the country. But we can’t just go — it’s so expensive. To create the largest size plate, it is estimated to cost $500 per shot so we always have to plan it out. Chase Jarvis just sponsored our trip to Seattle, so we were able to travel there and work on the project. So that’s kind of how we’ve been going from place to place. Our goal is to tell the stories of people who live across America.
All those years I was working … I just saved and saved all my money and knew I was going to do something one day, but I wasn’t sure what that would be. And when the idea of this huge wet plate camera came to me, I realized I had been working toward it for the past 10 years. I took all my savings and put it toward the project, so that’s what keeps it going for now.
Q: Are your wet plates for sale?
A: People have been trying to buy them, but I don’t want to just whittle them away before I have a show. But we do need the money to continue the project, so I may start selling a limited amount. It’s touchy, though, because it’s like a piece of me. … You’re not going to go over to your printer and make another one – that’s it.
Q: How fast can the camera-truck drive?
A: (Burst of laugher) It doesn’t drive very fast … but you know that going into it, so you plan accordingly. It’s nice going on trips where you’re not just blasting down the highway to get there. It makes us see; we look at things more closely because we aren’t just flying by everything.
LINKS FOR IAN RUHTER
Silver & Light
January 25, 2013, 9:54 am
A new verb is born. This.
January 27, 2013, 7:00 pm
Ian Ruhter is a modern day Man Ray or Henri Cartier-Bresson in that he is setting a new standard in the art of photography. What sets him apart, perhaps even from these icons, is that he is doing it with forgotten, rather than new, techniques. Unbelievable.
February 8, 2013, 2:23 pm
Ian has come such a long way since he and I met in '97. I've been honored to witness his passion for photography develop from the early stages, the respect & recognition awarded beyond the snowboard industry, to seeing his vision of Silver and Light become reality. Ruhter has made his mark in the history of photography and I believe he will continue this impression for many years to come.
February 13, 2013, 9:09 am
FYI – The image of 'Jason Wilson, East Los Angeles' has been flipped horizontally.
May 17, 2013, 6:05 am
Ian I think this is the first time I've heard your story outside the Silver and Light videos' perspective. It's great to see some of your other photos too from your commercial work and the Enabled project.
Hearing you talk about your story and your views on different things in life really reminds me of my similar ways of looking at things. I think that's a main reason why I find you so inspirational.
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