Before there was digital, there was film. And before there was film, there was the collodion wet plate process.
The wet plate process was introduced in the 1850s. It is a complex hands-on craft, involving silver nitrate and other hazardous chemicals. In addition, wet plates require tremendous amounts of lights. Exposure times range from several seconds to a couple minutes. However, if everything is done right, the result is a beautiful and strikingly brilliant photograph with a silvery feel.
Hence, there are still a number of enthusiasts out there, making and developing their very own wet plates. Ian Ruhter is one of them. But there is one thing that makes Ian unique.
“I had been working with the wet plates process for a while when I discovered the work of Eadweard Muybridge,” says Ian. “Muybridge was the one who figured out how to freeze motion. He shot these images of a running horse, hanging midair, and, you know, that was something that the world had never seen before!”
How did Muybridge do that?
“The exposure time of wet plates is really, really long, but Muybridge managed to cut it down by mixing the chemicals and using a lot of white, reflective material. He had a white background and poured salt on the floor and stuff like that. When I saw that, I realized that I could use modern technology to take his work to the next level.”
Ian’s theory was that if he had enough strobes with enough power, he would be able to reduce the wet plate exposure time to a fraction of a second. He would then be able to suspend motion with a level of clarity that Muybridge could only have dreamed of.
At this time, Ian was already an established snowboard photographer with a series of successful campaigns for the clothing company Foursquare under his belt. Ian told Foursquare about his ambitious idea and suggested that they shoot snowboarders on the slopes. Foursquare was thrilled.
“No one had ever used artificial lights and wet plates to freeze motion,” says Ian. “I honestly didn’t know if it was going to work. So I have to give it to Foursquare – they took a big chance with me. It was a pretty expensive shoot, you know…”
How did you prepare?
“Well, I had already done a number of portraits using the wet plates so I could sort of estimate how much more light I would need to cut down the exposure time to an acceptable level. I also did a test with a guy skateboarding about six months before the snowboard shoot. We went to a studio where they have a lot of lights. We then started shooting, bringing in more and more lights until we started to get the results we wanted. But it was incredibly difficult. The collodion in the wet plates only reacts to UV light, and I just didn’t know enough about strobes to be able to calculate exactly how many lights I would need to get a certain exposure.”
How much equipment did you end up bringing with you to the ski slope?
That’s a lot…
“Yeah, we even had one of those big, tow-behind generators up there, and we were still very close to not making it. I mean, nobody had done anything like that before. It wasn’t like I could just call somebody up and ask. On top of that, all these flash packs were out there in the snow, and the cords were in the snow, and it was just really, really difficult to keep everything dry and safe. We actually almost gave up on several occasions. But we couldn’t. I mean, Foursquare had already paid for everything!”
But how does it feel now that you actually made it?
“It feels really good. It makes me think there’s a lot more you can do with wet plates.”
I thought all that hassle might have made you want to go 100% digital?
“No, I think all I want to do is work with wet plates now!”
Written by Fredrik Franzén
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