For a decade, snowboard photographer Ian Ruhter saved as much money as he could. Not so much for a rainy day, more for the dream to be named later. “I knew one day I’d like to do something,” he says. “I didn’t know it was this, but I knew it would be something.”
That something is “American Dream,” a multi-media project based around Ruhter’s travels meeting and photographing Americans from all walks of life with the truck he converted into a giant camera. Not just any camera, but one that took wet plate photos using the collodion process, used primarily in the 19th century.
He’s invested his life savings into this project and is hoping some of the attention it’s gained will help its momentum continue with the help of brand sponsors and partners. The project’s first video, “Silver & Light,” posted to Vimeo earlier this year and has garnered more than a million views. Ruhter’s goal for the project is to create a web series, a photography book, gallery shows and ultimately, a documentary.
“We’re creating a lot of content,” says Ruhter. “These interviews and chronicling this project’s journey could interest a lot of people, particularly American brands like Levi’s. So we’re trying to put together proposals for that kind of thing.”
“American Dream” opens with shots of Ruhter himself, talking about his state of mind around the challenges this project faced. The circumstances were daunting. “As we were filming the first piece back in late summer, I was audited by the IRS and the first bill they sent me was for $105,000,” says Ruhter. “It was insane. In that same week, I got the email to say I had lost my job. That’s where the opening shots come from. That’s where my head was.”
Both were gut-punch disappointments, but the 38-year-old Lake Tahoe native took it as a sign. “It made me think this is it, this is the time to make that leap. Maybe this is why I saved all those years.”
The personal stories of Ruhter’s subjects are compelling, as is their participation in the photo process. “Typically in photography, you take the picture, pack your stuff away and then take off,” he says. “But this [wet plate] process is so in-depth and there’s so much to it, they can become part of creating their own pictures. And they want to see how it works, touch it, feel it and really see how it’s created. You go in meeting a stranger and you come away with a friend. There’s just a great connection that happens.”
Ruhter says the response so far has been overwhelming, with strangers from all over America offering words of encouragement or telling him their story in the hopes of becoming part of the project. His next trip will be to a New Mexico Apache reservation to visit and photograph a kid who got in touch over Facebook.
“I think people are really connecting with it because we’re not just taking pictures, we’re following a dream,” he says. “Maybe life or circumstances have prevented some people from doing it themselves, but if you can help someone else achieve their dreams, people are really drawn to that.”
America loves big dreamers and Ruhter has put it all on the line for his. “The more momentum we gain, the more difficult it is,” he says. “I’m saying that I’m going to take this thing across America, and I don’t know how I’m actually going to pull it off. But I said I’d build the truck, I didn’t know how, but I did it. So I just have to keep believing and trying and keep going.”