Already dubbed the Master of Wet Plate Photography by us, Ian Ruhter needs no introduction. Recently he embarked on a journey to Slab City, to create the world’s largest wet plate collodion. He tells an inspirational tale enveloped in philosophical queries.
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy making pictures that appease everyone else, but leave me questioning if they represent what is truly in my heart. My images of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and pristine landscaped photos appear to be what everyone is typically interested in. It is great to receive praise and recognition, even being compared to Ansel Adams – which is one of the highest compliments you can receive. The problem is it’s not who I am. When I chose to make the world’s largest wet plate collodion direct positives (ambrotypes) I didn’t quite know what I was getting my self into. It’s been incredibly difficult and extremely expensive. I thought by going along with all this attention and praise there would be some kind of pay off, ironically enough it left me feeling empty and still searching to find myself.
This spring I found myself drawn to another mountain. This mountain is very different from any other mountain I had ever photographed or seen. It is the first thing you see before entering the community of Slab City. Leonard Knight created this mountain; a man who spent his later years in life creating something with his own hands based solely upon his beliefs. No one asked him to do this and he certainly wasn’t getting paid for it. I knew that I had to visit this magical place. I wanted to get back to my original idea behind creating this giant camera. It was built to tell the stories of the people and the places in the country I call home.
I decided that I was going to take the last bit of money I had and put it all into this one trip no matter what the outcome. I needed to do this for myself.
Our team started prepping and the journey began. The months of pre-production by our film director, Lauren Vance, connected me with individuals who I immediately felt inspired by and could see the impact of Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain. It was becoming clear that this mountain was more than a physical thing. It is an idea that love and hope will bring people together in a way that will better mankind.
For example, Bill Ammon worked side-by-side with Leonard Knight. Leonard was one of the first people to give him a chance and help him get back on his feet. Years later Bill would create a place called The Range. It could be described as a Talent Show. It is far more than this, it gives Slab City a sense of community.
I also became incredibly inspired by Pastor Dave through his work and dedication to his Slab City Ministry. His church consists of chairs under a tarp to block the heat of the sun and the word of God. Pastor Dave reaches people through his desert sermons and helps people survive in this harsh desert environment.
From the moment we drove onto Ellen and Hiyer’s home we were greeted with open arms. Their hospitality and willingness to share the things they had with us really touched me. I wouldn’t advise just walking up on their home without permission. Ellen described sometimes chasing people off with a machete in the middle of the night.
Each person we met in this community shared their stories and dreams with us. I started to realize that following what was in your heart may not always pay but at the end of the day you could be proud of who you are and what you’ve accomplished.
A few months after I returned home and the dust settled I realized what our team had created. This was the first trip for years that we were are able to go on and really do what we wanted to. The dream building a giant camera that would bring people together and tell their stories is becoming a reality.
It is almost been one year since we set out on this monumental voyage. We plan on returning to slab city to finish filming a documentary about this incredible place. In addition to the documentary we hope to create the world’s largest wet plate collodion ambrotypes to complement the film with hopes of giving a three-dimensional view into this unique environment. We are currently in the works presenting this project for our first major museum show.
It’s nice to be recognized for creating works of art that truly represent who you are.
This project was made possible by the many people that believe in this process. We made the portraits at Slab City using four Pro-7b Battery Generators and two ProTwin heads with Profoto Magnum Reflectors. These lights were used as fill in addition to the powerful desert sunlight. The goal was to not make the images look over produced. I wanted the portraits to mach the landscape images. For the behind-the-scenes material we relied on our trusty iPhones to capture these moments. Unfortunately, mine and my assistant Will Eichelberger phones both crashed and we lost all of our photos. This is one of the reasons I believe in making tangible things. It’s quite hard to lose a 27 x 36 inch glass plate.