an Ruhter is a photographer and filmmaker who lives in South Lake Tahoe. Coming of age during the 90s, Ian developed a passion for snowboarding and its nomadic lifestyle. This drew him into a lifelong obsession with photography. Driven to discover new ways to use old techniques, Ian has never stopped experimenting. For over a decade he has shot from an enormous portable camera, working within it, like an abstract painter inside his own camera obscura. From his initial desire to get one great snowboarding shot, photography has led him into new interests like optics and the history of art, and along the way he’s told a lot of compelling pictorial stories about the world we live in.
We first met in high school, and looking back, I can see you had a drive to express something vital. You just didn’t know what it was yet. Then you made a life out of snowboarding for a handful of years. Do you consider that your first art form?
At the time I wasn’t interested in art. I didn’t like art, but in hindsight … it was the rawest form of art I’ve ever done. You go out into the mountains, and it’s like a white canvas, and you ride down it and use the shapes and the different pieces of it, and it’s really creative. … I didn’t want anything out of it—but I got everything out of it.
How did snowboarding transition into photography?
When I got sponsors, I started traveling around the world. They paired me up with photographers and filmmakers, and I started becoming friends with them, and I started asking them questions about photos. … After snowboarding, I didn’t figure out what to do. … I was working at the casinos, and I worked enough to buy a camera and get some film. I thought I could try and sell one ad of one of my friends, I’ll pay for it, and if I don’t like it I’ll get a free camera out of it. That’s how I got into it. That was my first goal. It worked out really good for me. … I got to be a senior photographer for Transworld and a staff photographer for Vans.
What drew you into exploring the wet plate process?
Well, I did the snowboarding for a while, but there was a point where I felt I had done everything I had set out to do. … I thought I wanted to get into commercial photography and I spent a whole year making these portfolio books. When I saw the final product, I looked at them, and I was like “this is bullshit,” and I threw them away. … From then on, it was like I made a subconscious decision: I didn’t want to do commercial work or fashion, and I knew I wanted to go back and shoot film. At that time it was the first wave of—Polaroid just said “we’re out of business, we’re done,” and that was my favorite film. Kodak was pulling back, and the alternative was digital and retouching. That part of it seemed fake. … What got me into the wet plate process was that it requires you to make your own film, and I figured out I can make my own film, then they can all go out of business and I can work the way I want.
How did the large-scale formats follow from that?
Well, what was even more important, once I figured this out—you pour the film onto the 8 x 12 plate—and for photography … that’s considered massive. And then one day I was looking out the window of my LA apartment and imagined a plate that big. You can make a wet plate as large as you want, so I knew the only thing holding me back was the size of the camera. And that’s when the idea of the truck camera happened. … I got my hands on an old ice cream truck and a huge lens—made my first giant camera from those.
When you shoot, you are working inside the camera?
Yeah, the camera is so big I literally work inside of it, as camera obscura. … The light comes in and strikes the plate. You see the projected image upside down and backwards. The wet plate process requires you to pour the film onto the plate, and then expose it, develop it, and everything.
What does this process allow you to do, besides making your own film?
The size of the plate allows you to create a pristine, detailed image, and I’ve used that in making outdoor photos to capture the environment around me. The surface area of the exposure allows for more information. Imagine a 4 by 4 inch exposure has traditionally been seen as large format, but now imagine the detail you get with a 48 by 60 inch exposure, or larger. …
I was shooting around me, in Tahoe and on the eastern side of the Sierra, and I’ve got this gigantic camera and this really beautiful film. The base of it is silver. I was making these pristine pictures of what was around me in the landscapes. But while I was doing it, I started learning, and I realized I was pouring liquid film over a glass plate. … But the liquid itself is a medium that can be used in pouring, like paint. Once I started getting familiar with the process, I had an epiphany about all these doors and thoughts inside my head, ways the fluid could be poured, splashed, manipulated. And then there is the optics because I can skew things to a point that no camera could ever do. I’m in that three-dimensional space in a way that’s not possible in a traditional camera. So, I’m playing with optics and blurring, and it’s not done through a machine, so I can do it sloppy or I can do it pristine.
You can see more of Ian Ruhter’s photography on his website and on Instagram.