Catching the Dolomites in the right light

Kurt Moser about an amazing project

A 15-tonne Russian military truck and an APO Nikkor lens with a focal length of 1,780 mm: photographer and cameraman Kurt Moser has a vision. He wants, with the help of the ambrotype, to catch the Dolomites in a whole new – or perhaps that should be antique – light!



ambrotype – catching ultraviolet light

In Kurt Moser’s words, “It is not so simple to explain the ambrotype. You just have to see the pictures produced using this technique!”. Kurt, 50, a native of South Tyrol, enthusiastically describes this highly unusual way of making images. “Ambrotypes have an unbelievably intriguing resolution, extreme contrasts and an impressive wealth of detail, in no way comparable to today’s photography”, is his passionate depiction of this photographic procedure, which dates from the year 1850.

Each picture is a unique item on glass, with a highly expressionistic imagery, with image- and chemistry-related errors, “although the word ‘error’ is not exactly right in this case, as the so-called ‘errors’ actually give the images their indescribable strength of character. It is not the light that humans can see that is caught, but rather light from a completely different wavelength: UV light. It is invisible to humans and was therefore one of the many aspects that fascinated me about the ambrotype.”

These impressive ambrotypes, measuring 50 x 60 centimetres, are taken by Moser’s two metre-long wooden camera dating from the year 1907. But the “baby”, as he affectionately calls his jumbo camera, is not of itself sufficient to realise his dream: he aims to use a gigantic Russian military truck, the Ural, converting it into an enormous ambrotype camera and darkroom in order to immortalise the Dolomites in photographs, “in images that do justice to these remarkable mountains” as the photographer puts it. The name of his project: “Lightcatcher”.



Glass, silver and light

To produce an ambrotype, Moser coats a black cathedral glass plate with a collodion emulsion that he mixes himself, then puts it in a silver bath. “A costly hobby”, as the artist admits. The subsequent exposure time is from 20 to 40 seconds – a major challenge. If Kurt Moser is making portraits of people, he first has to fix them in position with a neck brace – and then it is a question of holding your breath. Just a tiny movement by the model, a sudden gust of wind or even a temperature difference of just one half of a degree is enough to ruin everything.



Between art, chemistry and technology

Ambrotypes must be developed within five minutes of photographing. Kurt attended a chemistry course for this very reason and, through a slow process of experimentation, he came upon the right formula. “In the mountains, without any darkroom, developing the ambrotypes is a major challenge”, as he says.
To produce ambrotypes at all in the Dolomites required a great deal of inventiveness. And so the artist came up with the idea of utilising one of his other passions, and converting an old Ural, a Russian military truck.
For his project, this (c)old warrior would be transformed into a darkroom and mobile camera. In order to find the right optic for his “Ural camera”, Moser first trawled through thousands of blogs and books until finally he came across one of the world’s rarest optics: the APO Nikkor 1780 mm, which can produce images of up to 150 cm in size.


A cold warrior with a new task

The truck stands ready, the camera lens unearthed! The need is now however for enthusiastic supporters of Dolomite photography and art to convert the Ural into a mobile camera.
“I am convinced that there will be no shortage of people willing to back this unique art project, which is of such great importance for the Dolomites, a UNESCO world natural heritage site!” says Kurt Moser.