Los Angeles

The Alchemist: Ian Ruhter's Adventures in Silver and Light

Ian Ruhter

If image is any real measure, Los Angeles might seem an unlikely launch for the pursuit of truth: It's a place better known for the evocation of the hyper-real -- with its impatiently re-imagined landscape, its denizens, nipped and tucked into subjective perfection.

But photographer, Ian Ruhter, who also calls himself an alchemist, knows enough about chemistry to understand that stumbling upon new ways of seeing -- is about reactions -- a collision of forces -- that create something new.

Ruhter's all-consuming preoccupation in the last two years has been creating a series of dreamlike, elusively temporal images -- people, places, hints of moments -- that reach back to something not just deep inside our past but within our subconscious.

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

This is the alchemy: Both the actual chemistry of his photographic process as well as the interaction between people and place, perception and reality. Truth and lie.

Against the backdrop of stepped-up gentrification, Ruhter, holed up in a downtown L.A. loft at 6th and Main, two years ago, had begun tweaking and bending the possibilities of an antique photographic process -- wet-plate collodion -- a technique that dates back to the 1850s. Instead of "film," a photographic surface is coated with sensitized material -- the exposures, protracted, the development, too a sensitive affair.

The results dismantle our concept of time. The effect of the chemistry -- the dappled surfaces, the blurs and bubbles, the shock of the perception of texture on a two-dimensional plane, an iridescence that sometimes mimics the luminescence of a half-shell or a surface shimmer that replicates motion -- demands a second look at something or someone you might look past or through.

Ian Ruhter.

"As I began researching the process, I liked what I read was about the photographers themselves. Their stories," Ruhter explains, settling onto bench in a shade-dappled spot on the courtyard of Downtown's Central Library, not too far from that old loft. "These photographers were pioneers and scientists and artists and explorers," he says. "They were rebels. They were just out there. Just doing it. That's what I wanted to do. That's who I am. And it just made me want to do it even more. Just the spirit of it."

In a technological moment where so much of what is can be altered faster than ever via the smoke and mirrors of digital "filters," or the feel of "vintage" mimicked with the tap/slide of a smartphone app, Ruhter's position isn't just a contrarian, art-for-history's sake pose, but a deeply committed effort to re-calibrate the focus -- both within the frame and beyond it.

Out of this exploration in history and chemistry Ruhter's long-term visual poem evolved. The latest trail he's forging, "The American Dream Project" is a multi-dimensioned road-bound journey winding him through the country. This protracted road trip, like an oral narrative full of pauses and diversions, didn't start with pins on a map - but with the camera itself. To record the precise detail, the majesty, he was after, the surfaces themselves had to be large -- some of them -- 48 by 60 inches and beyond. That meant to take this project on the road, Ruhter travels in a re-converted delivery truck of his own design housing both camera and darkroom -- allowing him to work much like the 19th century photographers who inspired him.

With an engine fueled by word of mouth, a healthy gust of social media goodwill and donations that filter in through kindness of strangers -- this project is Ruther's attempt to create not just art a record of the contemporary United States -- but a sense of place, people and their dreams. "What I'm finding as people encounter it that they want to be in some way part of it," he says. "Maybe this is more of a movement than a photography project."

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

How Ruhter, 38, traveled to this spot is the result of a series of unexpected digressions, and some of which he first thought were wrong turns or complete dead-ends.

Photography hadn't been on the radar as a professional pursuit. Originally from South Lake Tahoe, he'd made a mark as an accomplished snowboarder, "I got good at it. I got sponsored. And these guys were taking pictures of me -- and I was fascinated with that. The photography. But I didn't want them to know. It wasn't cool, but inside I wanted to know."

By 26, his snowboarding career shelved, an aunt gave him an old film camera - a 35mm, Nikon SLR. Symbolically, for someone who had struggled in school, she didn't simply toss him hand-me-down, but a life-saver: "Growing up, I had a really, really strong learning disability - really bad dyslexia. I couldn't deal with the way they were teaching me. I wouldn't read and I wouldn't write. The best that I could be was be like the clown." Watching those first images shimmer up in the tray told him something else: "It instantly became more than just the act of taking photos. From here, I just fell in love with it. I found my voice."

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

He shored up the basics - camera operation, exposures, darkroom -- in a community college course, then took a part-time job at one of the local casinos to finance a more sophisticated camera to try his hand at professional work ... For practice, he would shoot, after work, "using the moonlight to expose things."His first subjects were landscapes, "because they were all around me." But really the late-night ritual was, he says, "a way to communicate my feelings through images."

Tapping into his snowboard-community resources, he quickly had work published in magazines, which in turn helped build a healthy client list -- gigs shooting catalogues and ad campaigns. But he saw his own limitations. "I realized I needed to learn more. So I decided I'll go to L.A. -- it's close -- to work and to learn."

Once here, the jobs came easily enough; assisting gigs, amassing new clients, but it all struck a deeply discordant note. "My voice was becoming the voice of these clients. I was shooting digital. That's what the clients wanted. But these people who hired me wanted me to morph people almost into animation just to sell their product. And that's a lie in the first place," he explains. "'Make the sunset a little brighter, just take a couple of blemishes off someone's face.' Where is the truth in this?"

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

The antidote felt clear: Reach back to his initial inspiration - shooting for himself, working with film. He dead-ended: discovering that some of his favorite film had been discontinued; the companies themselves now vanished. "It actually was a blessing for me," he admits, "because in doing the research it made me realize that I can make film. And nobody can take that away from me because I can do it. I wasn't trapped by whatever trend came around."

The DIY spirit of Ruther's creative arc, is embedded in every image, within each of the coinciding stories he collects along the way. The stories of sons, of mothers, of the hemmed in and drifters: the homeless, the jobless, children with circumscribed dreams.

The truck -- essentially the camera itself -- requires that he step inside to manipulate - is perhaps the most powerful symbol -- a machine with soul and heart: "I would be the brain and the sensor. My hands were the gears. I realized that I had to be a part of the whole thing and really liked that. It connected me to everything - and to the work -- in such an intimate way."

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

Ruther's road trip is more accurately a philosophical exploration: In this age of manipulated fact, just who are we and what legacy might we leave? And while Los Angeles may not seem at first to be a representative sample of what we think as this country's essence, Ruther, knows better -- in many ways L.A,. at its edges reflects a whole; it's both a microcosm and metaphor: "I love L.A." he says, without a shade of irony. I don't love the Hollywood part of it. I don't like what people see from the outside. But there are so many little cities within L.A."You can go through the city and basically travel the world. The people and the neighborhoods who have been cast aside.

Working both within L.A. and against it, cleared a new path -- a different way train the eye -- our collective focus: "People think I'm the 'Anti-Digital Guy, ' really. I'm combining the old with the modern. If you don't know about your past, how do you go into the future?" That's the "essence" he's after -- the messy, uncomfortable, un-retouched reality. "I talk to people from all of these different backgrounds and we all want the same things, but so many feel pushed up against the wall now. I do. I lost my biggest client in the middle of doing all of this. But this how great ideas are born, because you're backed into a corner," he says. "That's what's going on all over the country. Very great things will come out of these bad situations. And now that I have the ability, " he says, "I want to give voice to those who don't have one."

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

Photo: Ian Ruhter.

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Top Photo: Ian Ruhter.

About the Author

Lynell George, is an L.A. based, journalist and essayist.
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