Bombay Beach Obscura, the opposite of fast, quick and disposable
June 28, 2020 11:52 AM   Subscribe

While the rest of the world has been concentrating on making cameras smaller and lighter photographer, Ian Ruhter (previously) was making one literally the size of a house in order to make the world’s largest wet collodion plate (Wikipedia). The camera was used to produce a portrait of a 100-year-old local resident, Ted (PetaPixel), on a sheet of glass measuring 66x90 inches (DP Review) in Bombay Beach, California (Wikipedia), after he took a series (Ian's gallery) of similarly antiquated ambrotype (Wikipedia) portraits. The process by Ian and his team, and their time with some residents of Bombay Beach and Slab City, was captured by Lauren Vance in the short documentary "Obscura."
posted by filthy light thief (11 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I love this kind of stuff. I've done a little bit with tintypes which is really not that hard to do but I've only done 4x5 plates; 66x90 is insane. I can't imagine getting the focus right, the depth of field on an image that big has to me microscopic.

I'm actually waiting on a Kickstarter for a dry-plate 4x5 holder so that I can buy a set of glass plates from J Lane and do some shoots with those. Maybe wet plates are in my future, we'll see how ambitious stupid I am.
posted by octothorpe at 12:30 PM on June 28 [1 favorite]

So, uh, is anything being done to house Ted?
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 1:06 PM on June 28 [21 favorites]


This is really cool. I built a 4x5 field camera a few years ago and have been meaning to experiment with wet plates in it, these links may fuel the fire.
I've been using contrasty and slow ortho sheet film in it, which can be used to make cyanotype positives, which I reckon is the lowest barrier to entry for weird alt processes.
posted by St. Oops at 1:19 PM on June 28 [2 favorites]

Homeless, at age 100. What a country. Only the briefest mention in the puff piece .. wow "66x90 inches"!!!
posted by anadem at 10:07 PM on June 28 [1 favorite]

(not to abuse the edit window): One of the article's comments says "Ted was never homeless. He was evicted and moved to Slab City." So there's that.
posted by anadem at 10:09 PM on June 28 [1 favorite]

really like this Big Ole Camera, as a metaphor for the 'passing of time' and the 'largeness of life'
posted by dongolier at 6:49 AM on June 29

That kind of soured my mood. I couldn't concentrate on it after they brought up Ted. WTF happened to him? How did he get homeless at 100 years old?
posted by james33 at 7:18 AM on June 29 [1 favorite]

The documentary is 30 minutes and change. If you don't have time for it, skip to 12:50, where Ian talks about Ted. He says that he was the first portrait he took in Bombay Beach, 3 years prior, when Ted was 97, and living with Suzy, partner. They both had outlived their former partners, Ted saying he had been married to Hazel for 72 or 73 years.

Ian describes Ted's circumstances as such: "Ted was forced to leave his home in Bombay Beach. He packed up some of his belongings and drove about 15 minutes down the road to a place called Slab City (Wikipedia)."

Then we see Lauren (I think), talking with Ted in a mobile home or RV, where he shows her pictures from his life, and of his wife, Hazel, who died from cancer. There are some really sweet pictures of the two of them, happy together.

If the articles on Ian's photography soured you, or felt like puff pieces, please do watch the documentary. I think that the Petapixel article was poorly written, which is a shame. I linked to it for the large-scale photo.

Salton Sea (previously, as tagged) is a bleak place, and it feels ripe for "ruin porn" (photos of dilapidated buildings and places that celebrate their decay), but Ian and Lauren capture the humanity. They came there not to document a dead place, but to focus on the people still living there. Jack, the first person Ian photographed, was really moved by the whole experience, and Ted seemed touched.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:34 AM on June 29

The YouTube channel Ask a Mortician uses vintage tintype equipment to recreate Victorian postmortem photography at the Merchant’s House Museum in New York City.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:46 AM on June 29 [1 favorite]

Um, belated content warning: actual postmortem photographs are shown toward the end of the video, around the 18:20 mark.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:03 AM on June 29

Whittled, rotted, and abandoned: How Bombay Beach has gone from apocalyptic wasteland to offbeat art hub (Roadtrippers Magazine, Feb. 2019)
Part of Bombay Beach’s allure is the irony. The thing that keeps it alive is the same thing that’s still killing it: It’s located on the edge of an ecological disaster. And yes, people from all over the world come a long way to see it.

The rundown community sits on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, a massive desert lake whose very existence reads like a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of manmade climate change. It stands 227 feet below sea level on the southern terminus of the San Andreas fault, which over millions of years carved out a desert basin lower than any point in North America outside Death Valley.

Thanks to a cataclysmic irrigation miscalculation circa 1905, the Colorado River gouged a mile-wide flood channel funneling water into the land called Salton Trough for two years. By the time they plugged the breach, Salton Sea had emerged as California’s largest inland body of water.
The people came, but the water left, and then people left, too.

But then in 2011, artist-types have been coming to Bombay Beach as a new, inexpensive art space.
The loose collective of artists and bon vivants who organize the spring festival possess the resources to commission original artwork from renowned artists, and enough social clout to show up in Getty Image stock photo searches. There’s an Italian prince, and a scion of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire. After a couple of independent filmmakers in their circle discovered that the Bombay ruins made an ideal location to shoot zombie movies, they all became enthralled by its squalor, and found that beachfront lots could be purchased out of foreclosure for as little as $800.

“It’s soil that interesting fun art can be made in,” says Biennale organizer Stefan Ashkenazy, owner of West Hollywood’s Petit Ermitage hotel, and co-creator of “The Last Resort.” This includes the billboards as well as the storage container hotel he hopes to establish on site, where each room’s interior will be designed by a different commissioned artist.
But it seems that they're not putting enough back into the community that the people who live there year-round appear to be doing much better, from the documentary and photos.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:09 AM on July 3

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