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‘The Picture Show’: Documenting Isolation and Inspiration by the Salton Sea

In my latest documentary project, The Picture Show, I follow the story of people who explore a different image of themselves and their circumstances in one of the most overlooked environments in America. The people who have made a home along the Salton Sea, a shallow saltwater lake in California’s Coachella Valley, represent a cross-section of America. The main communities along the sea are Bombay Beach, Slab City and East Jesus. Hipsters, Ivy Leaguers, drug addicts, the very rich and the very poor coexist on the lake’s desolate, inhospitable shores.

The main subject in The Picture Show is contemporary artist Ian Ruhter, who’s known for pushing the boundaries of a photographic process called wet plate collodion. The larger-than-life images he creates are certainly noteworthy, as is how he shoots them. His imaging device, the world’s largest wet plate camera, is also his darkroom and his means of transportation. It is literally a camera truck.

Ian Ruhter and his camera truck

In The Picture Show, Ruhter photographs the residents of Slab City using gigantic 27 x 36-inch glass plates called ambrotypes. Because of the intense physical and technical requirements involved, the photographer and subject interact and work on the image for at least a few hours. The ghostly, magical images portray an authenticity rarely seen in modern life, and the difficult process of making them yields an unexpected alchemy of its own.

While Ruhter had his wet plate camera truck, I had Sony’s PXW-FS7, a camera I could depend on to capture the daily lives of the subjects at the heart of this film—their homes, camps, kitchens, prayer circles and the places where they entertain.

I selected the FS7 as our main camera because of the beautiful cinematic picture it produces. There are so many things to like about the FS7, from its ability to shoot 4K and its low-light capability and dynamic range to its form factor. In short, it provides the best of both worlds: it has qualities of an ENG camera that provide a more cinematic landscape without being too intrusive.

The FS7’s ergonomics make it easy to transition between shooting modes. The shoulder mount on this camera makes it one of the better models for documentary shooting and allows you to remain an inconspicuous part of the process.

Lauren Vance with Sony’s FS7 on the set of The Picture Show

One of my goals on The Picture Show was to shed light on this tattered community of misfits and outsiders. At the same time, I was highlighting Ruhter as he employs his photographic process to achieve his goal of creating images in the most natural way possible—with no major production setups, no light kits and no stopping the process once it has started. I wanted to be a “fly on the wall” as much as possible during the photo-making sessions when Ruhter engages with the subjects, who are also the focus of my film.

We constantly had to adapt to changing lighting conditions. One minute we were under the harsh, bright light of the Sonoran desert, and then the next we were shooting inside the camera truck in nearly full darkness. The FS7 captured each scenario easily.

The camera’s low-light capabilities allowed me to shoot images inside the wet plate collodion photography truck that were beyond what I thought possible. If you know photography, then you know that complete darkness is required inside a camera or darkroom, so being able to see what was happening was extraordinary.

Ian Ruhter and wet plate technician Will Eichelberger present the image of Builder Bill

After testing the FS7 prior to heading to the Salton Sea and seeking advice from expert DPs like Rob Featherstone, who have used Sony setups for years, I decided to shoot with a flatter, washed out picture that would need minor color tweaks in post. This was achieved in the Cine EI mode—at different S-Log exposures that gave me the most latitude. As my editor, Shannon Burnham, has said, he only had to do a little contrast boost to the footage in post.

My hope is that in watching The Picture Show, people see the intimate picture within these delicate pieces of art, the allure of this deserted land and the fragile beauty of the human beings who dwell there.

Lauren Vance is a director, producer and filmmaker.