PDN Photo of the Day

Betting on Wet Plate Collodion

At the start of Ian Ruhter’s video “Silver & Light,” the photographer, his head covered in a gas mask and hood, mixes illicit-looking powders and liquids in beakers and heats them under the flame of a cigarette lighter. It looks like a scene from Breaking Bad, but rather than building a drug empire, Ruhter is making collodion for the wet plate process he uses to produces large-scale tintypes. Ruhter, originally a commercial and sports photographer, explains in the short that he had become bored with the sameness of digital photography. “I just got tired of it. Everyone around me had the same cameras, the same signatures,” he says. In revolt, he decided to invest all of his saving in the equipment and materials needed to work with the 19th century technique. After taking classes with collodion expert and teacher Will Dunniway, Ruhter converted a box truck into an enormous mobile camera, and took the elaborate process on the road, traveling around Los Angeles, to Yosemite National Park and elsewhere in the West. In the video, he and his assistants pour light-sensitive chemicals over 4×5 foot sheets of blackened aluminum, tilting them to spread the emulsion before exposing them in the camera-truck and immediately developing them, before the collodion dries and loses sensitivity. In the video, Ruhter goes through several duds at $500 a pop, he admits, but eventually he found success with the tricky process.

A selection of these and other landscapes is on view at Danziger Gallery in New York until January 16, including both collodion plates and replica pigment prints made from them. In Ruhter’s images, nature is pristine—the Yosemite Valley shines like it did for Carleton Watkins; the peaks of Monument Valley soar and Mammoth Lake sparkles. For Ruhter, though, the images he makes are only part of the point of what he does. As he said in an interview, “Even if it’s not the actual photo that is inspiring people, even if they’re becoming emotional about the process—connecting with people is still the most exciting part of being an artist.”

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