In 1859, Charles Weed was the first person to ever take a photograph in Yosemite. In the early 1860s, Carleton Watkins was the second, taking huge 18x22 inch negatives that convinced Abraham Lincoln and congress to sign the 1864 bill designating Yosemite the nation’s first national park. Ansel Adams came along 100 years later, with his brooding images of Half Dome that elevated environmental photography into an art form. And today, in 2013, Ian Ruhter is here 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 has ever been in Yosemite,” says a 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 some 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.
Yosemite Steve is studying the photography of Carleton Watkins, the second photographer in Yosemite, whom he believes to be an unsung hero of photography. He sees many parallels between Ruhter and Watkins’ work. Ruhter’s camera, for example, is basically a supersized version of Watkins’, using the same “wet-plate collodion” technique. “Except Carleton made negatives and Ian is doing positives,” says Yosemite Steve. “Carleton made negatives so that he could make prints, but I don’t want to make prints,” says Ruhter. “I want to make one-off things, like a painting,” he says. It’s a novel approach, when you consider that anywhere between 20,000 to 50,000 photos are shot on iPhones and digital cameras around Yosemite, every day. “Me, I am really fascinated in the ‘one’,” continues Ruhter. “Especially in this age where everything is mass produced, mass reproduced. I really like just one. That’s all it takes.” Ruhter is going to attempt to photograph a dramatic rock face and waterfall tomorrow. We say attempt, because there are no guarantees with this camera truck. The last time he was here, none of the shots he took with the camera developed, and he was not happy about it.
Ruhter speaks in cryptic Yoda-meets-the-Cheshire-Cat riddles, and when I ask what time we should we meet him tomorrow to observe him shooting the rock face and waterfall, this is his response. “You can come 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 Willie, a 23-year-old photographer and self-confessed “art nerd” from Casper. Willie 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 so-called " American Dream Project", a sort of traveling oral and visual history of the nation, all images captured in the magic truck. Willie even has the camera truck tattooed on his left arm.
Wandering around the camp is Lane, also in his twenties, 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. Lane is the clearest communicator of the trio, and helps fill in some gaps as I try to piece together why on earth Ruhter, a former pro snowboarder and commercial photographer, would have decided to devote his life to driving around the nation in a truck-sized camera.
“Well I heard about this guy who was building a giant camera in Lake Tahoe,” says Lane. “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 Lane. That was in September of 2011. “And what’s the end goal of all this?” I ask Lane. “To do what we want when we want to do it,” he shrugs.
After that Lane, Ian and Willie started traveling, Lane filming their trips for an online docu series which 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 US. To many, Ruhter is an iconoclast, an analogue man in a digital age, bearing an almost anarchic distaste for the wasteful, acquisitory, “more is more” nature of our society. The whole analog vs. digital point is moot though, as far as Ruhter is concerned. He Instagrams, he’s on Facebook and has an iPhone. He’s not trying to make a statement about the proliferation of social media—actually he loves social media, it’s how many of his fans have been able to access his work. As an artist, he appreciates the power of modern technology and he does not dress up in period costume, like some other enthusiasts of wet-plate collodion photography. Rather 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 Cooks Meadow, waterfall flowing, in real time. The image is black and white and unbelievably crisp, a hypnotic living scene that is somehow, dare I say it, more beautiful than the real thing outside. How can that be?
“Because we are creating it,” says Ruhter, poet philosopher to the core.
“What’s really cool about this is that your eyes actually see things this way, upside down” says Tim, another of Ruhter’s disciples. “Then our brains flip the image over.” 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.”
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 dark room photography at community college, getting a part-time job at a local casino so he could buy a better camera. He moved to LA and established a successful career as a commercial and magazine photographer, but found that he resented the pace of that life. He did not like having to shoot digital, he hated retouching and airbrushing. So he quit, left LA for Lake Tahoe, and poured his life savings into a big pale blue truck. Now he’s happy.
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. The last time he tried to shoot at Yosemite, none of the plates developed. Today, luck is on Ruhter’s side, and he makes several stunning plates of the landscape. Later, to celebrate, he poses on top of a precipitous rock overhang, grinning above a 3000 feet 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.