Eight years ago, fed up with the retouching and mass production of digital photography, South Lake Tahoe photographer Ian Ruhter did something a little crazy.
He quit his commercial gigs in Los Angeles, moved back to his hometown, and spent his savings converting an old delivery truck into a giant camera — a mechanism he would use to create large images on tin and glass plates using a 19th century technique called wet plate collodion.
With the help of his assistant Will Eichelberger, Ruhter makes his own liquid film in the truck to pour onto the plates, then lets light in through the giant lens to create one-of-a-kind, silver-infused images.
An entire day’s work might only result in one usable image.
“Working inside the truck, we become the mechanics and moving parts of the camera,” said Ruhter. “What comes out is the final image. There is no way to retouch it. I really fell in love with the process and what it said in today’s climate with digital being so fast and now. This was something that was permanent and real and very truthful to me.”
Over the years Ruhter and Eichelberger have driven the truck around the country, photographing people and landscapes and earning recognition from publications like The New York Times, National Geographic, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s held exhibitions from coast to coast.
And while a bulk of Ruhter’s work is landscapes shot in places like Tahoe, Monument Valley and Yosemite, his latest project focuses on an entirely different environment — Slab City, an abandoned naval base turned alternative-living community north of San Diego in the California Badlands.
Makeshift homes are constructed out of old school buses, trailers, sheds and tents alongside RVs from retired snowbirds coming to escape winter and take advantage of the lack of fees.
Artists, anarchists, transients, retirees, and homeless people have been squatting on the government-owned land since the 1950s. Art — including nearby Salvation Mountain — covers the community. There’s no electrical grid, no running water and no sewer system.
“We fell in love with the community,” said Ruhter. “A lot of people will come out there, but they will come out and take selfies, and it’s almost like ‘look at this freak show, look at their misfortune, but I’m going to capitalize on it and shoot a music video here.'”
Ruhter and Eichelberger would spend weeks at a time shooting out in Slab City while staying in the nearly abandoned town of Bombay Beach. Once a resort town where Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys performed in the 1950s and 1960s, the lake — accidentally created by flooding from the Colorado River in 1905 — eventually became polluted with pesticide runoff and saltier than the Pacific Ocean. The fish died off, and people stopped coming.
The pair got to know the few residents of Bombay Beach, too, and the photographs from the two towns morphed into Ruhter’s latest project, Obscura.
“I had this idea to make a massive plate and what happened is we actually outgrew the truck,” said Ruhter. “I thought, what if we take something that’s been abandoned and not focus on it, but flip it around and turn it into a camera and use that to photograph the community?”
With that, Ruhter turned a boarded-up home in Bombay Beach into an even bigger camera. Over a year, he created two 200-pound ambrotypes — images created on glass with collodion — measuring 66 by 90 inches. They are the world’s largest ambrotypes.
One plate depicts a tree outside the camera house and now hangs in the Nevada Museum of Art. Another captures a 100-year-old Bombay Beach resident named Ted.
“He had a little house there, but when we decided to do this, in that time he actually became homeless,” said Ruhter. “The strangest thing about this is we’re using an abandoned house to photograph a 100-year-old homeless man and for that instance we are projecting his image into a house.”
Ruhter and his team created a film about the process, which ultimately became a very personal, interconnected experience with the people of Bombay Beach and Slab City.
“It goes through the journey of us transforming this house into a camera, and the people who live in the community start to get involved. We shot smaller plates of these people as we were building the camera,” explained Ruhter. “It introduces Ted and his life and journey and how it starts intertwining with our journey.”
The 30-minute film debuted in South Lake Tahoe this July.