Painting with silver and light

Alchemist photographer Ian Ruhter brings his time machine to Mammoth

There is a saying: “Jump, and the net will appear.”

When one is compelled by a vision and takes a leap of faith toward that vision, great things happen.

Such is the story behind Ian Ruhter’s Silver and Light project.

Ruhter’s vision and project brought him and his crew to Mammoth Lakes on Tuesday, July 23, and they invited anyone interested to come and watch, eager to meet new people and share their unique project.

The Silver and Light crew were in town to do a photo shoot with one of the world’s most well-known and respected snowboarders of all time. The photographs will be used for a project to be made public in a few months (the Mammoth Times will be featuring a full story in an upcoming issue of Mammoth Sierra Magazine).

After several years of making photographic art, Ruhter became unfulfilled with the modern day advancements in photography, feeling that a connection was lost to the most important component to photographic art: the image.

An image needs no words. It needs to capture the underlying truths of a subject, and connect the viewer through an intuitive, subconscious resonance.

An artist is a constant problem solver, and the answer to Ruhter’s problem of being personally unfulfilled in his art was to use an antique form of photography in a new way.

The light at the end of the tunnel was a nineteenth century process called wet plate collodion.

The collodion process was invented, almost simultaneously, by Frederick Scott Archer and Gustave Le Gray in about 1850.

By the end of that decade it had almost entirely replaced the first practical photographic process, the daguerreotype.

The name Silver and Light is derived from this process which requires silver nitrate as an active chemical ingredient, and light to create the image.

In order for Ruhter to bring his vision into reality, he converted an old delivery truck into a giant portable camera and darkroom. He was so compelled that Ruhter invested his entire life savings into bringing it to life, and now dedicates most of his time to the project.

Once the camera was built, Ruhter assembled a crew and set out to travel in order to meet new people and see new places while making photographs of them.

His team has created, and continues to create, some entertaining videos chronicling the journey.

The wet plate collodion process is very different than the point-and-shoot, digital photography of today. It is a highly laborious and expensive process, which requires a professional level of expertise.

In order to get a proper exposure, the camera shutter has to be left open for long periods of time, even in bright daylight.

Will Eichelberger, one of Ruhter’s assistants, explained that the image is actually created from UV Rays, not just from the visible light.

At 8,000 feet, Mammoth Lakes has plenty of strong UV rays.

On Tuesday, Ruhter used four large studio flashes and left the shutter open for 20 seconds to make the plate that eventually became the winning portrait.

Only four plates were made that day.

It took about four hours of shooting and an hour of set up and tear down.

Before each exposure, the chemicals must be prepared, the lens focused, the shot framed, and the lighting readied.

Ruhter positioned his subject exactly as he wanted, and asked him to stay perfectly still for the entire duration of the exposure. He used a weighted light stand to mark exactly where the subject stood.

When he takes photos, his subjects rest their heads on the stand in order to steady themselves, in the exact position.

The depth of field is so shallow, that when the eyes of the subject are in focus, the nose is blurred.

It is absolutely essential the subject refrain from blinking or moving a muscle—the photograph will end up blurred.

This is why you never see very old photographs with people smiling; to hold a smile for 30 seconds or so, without moving, is nearly impossible.

Once the exposure is made on the powder coated aluminum plate, it is immediately placed in a developing bath while still inside the camera-dark-room-truck.

The plates vary in size, and have an almost limitless potential. It is the size of the camera that limits the size of the plate.

On Tuesday, the plates were about 24”x36.”

The inside of the truck is the inside workings of the camera. After a few minutes in the developer, the plate is then moved out of the truck to a tray filled with water in order to protect the sensitive surface from any foreign particles, like dust, etc.

After the water tray, the plate is rinsed with distilled water and set aside to dry.

The final step is to apply a varnish to protect the image from scratching and oxidation. If the image is not coated, it will eventually disappear from the oxidation of the silver.

Eichelberger mentioned that one of the three existing photographs of Billy the Kid (19th century American gunman and frontier outlaw) has recently turned black due to oxidation from not being properly preserved. The image lost forever.

When done correctly, the process yields a highly detailed, extremely sharp image. The rich, deep tones and textures created with the process are unlike any modern technology.

The image has an almost ghostly, ethereal quality, revealing the soul of the subject. Maybe it is the fact that the subject has to sit perfectly motionless, silently in thought, for so long.

Or maybe it’s in the void between breaths when the soul percolates to the surface.

Regardless, Ruhter’s Silver and Light project is a testament to the unique history of photography and its technology.

Ruhter said he would return to Mammoth in the near future.

If you would like to see some of Ian Ruhter’s work, or learn more about the Silver and Light project, visit He also has a Facebook page and a blog.

Be sure to keep an eye out for our winter issue of Mammoth Sierra Magazine, available for free all over Mammoth and California, featuring a more in depth story and many high quality images of Ruhter’s work.