In the early 1860s, photographer Carleton Watkins took huge 18” x 22” negatives of Yosemite Valley that convinced Abraham Lincoln and Congress to sign the 1864 bill that preserved the area for all time and paved the way for America’s National Park system. Ansel Adams came along 100 years later with his brooding images of Half Dome and elevated environmental photography into an art form. And today, in 2013, Ian Ruhter is back in Yosemite with what may be the most unusual camera these granite slopes have ever seen. His camera is as big as a truck. It is a truck, in fact. And its mechanism is the humans inside.
“I’m pretty sure it’s the biggest camera that’s ever been in Yosemite,” says a local man who goes by the name Yosemite Steve. It’s nighttime and we can hear the bear patrol circling—rangers making noise so as to scare away any wandering beasts. We’re sitting around a barely smoldering campfire, Ruhter’s pale-blue camera truck parked a few feet away, looking less like a camera and more like someplace to buy ice cream or tacos. Yosemite Steve, also a photographer and a videographer, is a fan of Ruhter and his remarkable camera, which uses a lens the size of a beach ball to create images on huge aluminum wet plates, resulting in iridescent, finely detailed silver impressions of the world outside.
Ruhter’s camera is basically a supersized version of Watkins’, using the same “wet-plate collodion” technique. “Except Carleton made negatives and Ian is doing positives,” Yosemite Steve says.
“I want to make one-off things, like a painting,” Ruhter says. “Especially in this age where everything is mass produced, mass reproduced. I really like just one. That’s all it takes.”
Ruhter speaks in cryptic Yoda-meets-the-Cheshire-Cat riddles. When asked what time he plans to shoot tomorrow he replies, “between noon and noon fifteen. Or two to two thirty. Or five to six. Or you can show up whenever you want. I can’t guarantee I will be there.” There are giggles to his left, from Ruhter’s mellowed-out protégé, Will Eichelberger, a 23-year-old photographer and self-confessed “art nerd” from Casper, Wyoming. He met Ruhter two years ago, shortly after his father died. He sat in Ruhter’s truck, cried, and decided he was going to go on the road with Ruhter and join his “American Dream Project,” a sort of traveling oral and visual history of the nation, all images captured in the magic truck. Eichelberger even has the camera truck tattooed on his left arm.
Wandering around the camp is Lane Power, also in his 20s, also a photographer, and a filmmaker, and a welder. He helped Ruhter customize the truck, a former delivery vehicle that Ruhter bought in Los Angeles nearly two years ago. Power is the clearest communicator of the trio and is able to fill in some gaps in his mentor’s biography: Originally from South Lake Tahoe, Ruhter was a sponsored snowboarder who took up photography at age 26 after retiring from the sport. His aunt had given him an old 35mm Nikon SLR film camera and he studied darkroom photography at community college, getting a part-time job at a local casino so he could buy a better camera. He moved to L.A. and had a successful career as a commercial and magazine photographer but resented the pace of that life. He did not like having to shoot digital; he hated retouching and airbrushing. So he quit, left L.A. for Lake Tahoe, and poured his life savings into a big pale-blue truck. Now he’s happy.
“I had heard about this guy who was building a giant camera in Lake Tahoe,” says Power. “I am really into building and fabricating, so I just started showing up where he was working on it. To me, Ian had this Wizard of Oz magic about him, like the man behind the curtain. I kept asking to help until one day, he let me.”
At that point, Ruhter had yet to shoot a plate that he was happy with. Bear in mind, each plate costs around $500 to make. The first time Lane went out with Ruhter, to an abandoned silver quarry in Nevada, was the first time that Ruhter successfully captured an image. “I had never seen wet-plate before, and I was blown away by the silver highlights and the way it looked,” says Power. That was in September 2011. And what’s the end goal of all this? “To do what we want when we want to do it,” he shrugs.
After that Power, Ruhter, and Eichelberger started traveling, Power filming their trips for an online doc series that includes the remarkable Silver and Light, a short film that has helped elevate Ruhter from “that guy with the crazy camera” into a latter-day Thoreau, with a growing cult following around the U.S.
The whole analog vs. digital argument is moot, though, as far as he’s concerned. He Instagrams, he’s on Facebook, and has an iPhone. He sees himself as a contemporary photographer, building a bridge between past and future.
“Come here,” says Ruhter the next day, pulling back the black tarp on the back of the truck. Inside it is pitch dark except for a ghostly, upside-down moving image on a plate. It’s Yosemite Falls and Cook’s Meadow, waterfall flowing, in real time. The image is black-and-white and unbelievably crisp, a hypnotic living scene that is somehow more beautiful than the real thing outside. How can that be? “Because we are creating it,” he says.
For Ruhter, 39, who suffers from severe dyslexia, these photographs are the only way he knows to clearly and confidently express himself. “My photos are my voice,” he says. “This is how I show people how I think and feel, and this is how I see things. Upside down and wrong way round.”
Inside the truck, Ruhter shifts the plate back and forth, focusing the image. “Right now, we are the camera,” says Ruhter. “We are the gears. Trippy, huh?” When he is ready to make a photograph (he prefers the term “make” to “take”) he pours silver nitrate over the plate. It’s the silver that makes the plate light sensitive and gives it its eerie reflective quality.
Later, to celebrate, he poses on top of a rock overhang, grinning above a 3,000-foot drop. He hands his iPhone to one of his team—“I just want a picture of me standing on this rock, you know?”—and then shares it on his Instagram. “Now that’s what’s up,” he says.
Check out the February 2014 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands January 14) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.