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Photographer Uses 166-Year-Old Process to Capture the Spirit of North Dakota | #50StatesofArt

Victorian Era wet plate photography powers Shane Balkowitsch’s efforts to document North Dakota’s land, people and imagination.

by DJ Pangburn
Mar 6 2017, 4:09pm

North Dakota resident Shane Balkowitsch never intended to become a photographer, much less one who uses Victorian Era photography. That changed when he saw an image of an artist with a bottle in his hand. Balkowitsch messaged the photographer, asking about the bottle. The artist told him that it contained chemicals used in Victorian Era wet plate photography. Balkowitsch said he would love to make wet plates, but he says the photographer "politely and kindly informed" him that it would be impossible for a non-photographer to take up the difficult and archaic photographic technology.

Within 45 days of this conversation, on October 4th, 2012, Balkowitsch made his very first wet plate—a portrait of his brother Chad. From there, he says, there was no turning back. As of today, Balkowitsch has made 2,172 wet plates, and done so with a preternatural photographer's touch. The artist feels blessed to be creating work in his home state—a place where he says many photographers and painters can find an audience. Some of these artists have even sat for his wet plate photographs.

"Death by Oil" with Darren Thompson.

Over the last several years, Balkowitsch has shown his work at spaces like North Dakota Art Gallery, and his most recent series, Dark Silver: A collection of Black Glass Ambrotypes, was on display at the Lewis and Clark Center in Washburn, North Dakota, for four months. Over 90 of his plates are archived at the Historical Society of North Dakota, but Balkowitsch says the biggest honor was the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery's acquisition of his wet plate of boxing great Evander Holyfield.

Invented sometime around 1951, wet plate photography is unique process that produces images out of chemicals, silver nitrate, and glass. Most of the images of Abraham Lincoln, Sitting Bull, and General Custer, as well as most of the Civil War images, were captured with this same process.  

Shane Balkowitsch self-portrait

"I prefer glass because there is something about the weight and the fragility of glass that is romantic," he says. "You must protect and covet a portrait on glass and I like that thought."

The process begins by combining collodion—a combination of ether and gun cotton—with bromide salts. After pouring the collodion onto the plate, it is dipped into a 10% silver nitrate solution for three minutes, during which time the bromide attracts silver to the plate. The photosensitive plate is then loaded into a large format camera for exposure.

"Hand of Thy Father" with Mitch Miller (2017).

Once the plate is exposed to light, the image is developed. A "fixer" then affixes the image permanently onto the plate. After the plate dries in a dark room, varnish is applied, making it completely archival at that point.

"What is difficult and also very beautiful about the process is the long exposure times," says  Balkowitsch. "Your iPhone camera can capture an image in about 1/60th of a second. I am experiencing 10 seconds of exposure in studio, so it takes me 600 times longer to make a wet plate than it does a modern digital photograph. It is within these 10 seconds all the magic happens."

"I tell everyone that I am not actually taking a photograph of you, but a short movie—a 10-second movie in the form of a still life," he adds. "These 10 seconds are forever captured in the silver on the plate, never to get them back again."

"Temptationis Oblitus" with Mitch Miller (2017)

Though Balkowitsch's aesthetic is wide-ranging, he tends toward mythology and fantasy. Currently, he is doing a series for the Historical Society of North Dakota called Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective. The series is inspired by wet plate artist Orlando Scott Goff (also from Bismarck, North Dakota), who took the first photograph of Sitting Bull using the wet plate collodion process. Of the 90 of Balkowitsch's wet plates archived at the Historical Society, 65 of them are from this series.

Balkowitsch even took photographs at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests this past summer. And he was the first (and only) photograph allowed into the Camp of the Sacred Stone with his wet plate camera.

"I have documented the struggle that my friends have been enduring, and feel that it is my duty to capture and document what is going on in our state," he says. "These are my friends, and what kind of artist would I be or friend would I be if I did not support them in this very important struggle."

"POTUS Revealed" with Kevin Tengesdal (2017)

In Balkowitsch's mind, the glut of digital photographs is devaluing the meaning of images, both in the present and the future. When he make objects as archival as a wet plate, he cannot help but think about the future and where the images may one day find themselves.

"When I spend three hours in my studio I will make three to five portraits," he says. "Each one is thought out, the lighting is adjusted exactly the way I want it, and the person is sitting and looking exactly where I want them to."

"Floris White Bull" (2016)

As a testament to his interest in the wet plate process, Balkowitsch says he has plans to build the first natural light wet plate studio in his backyard this spring.

"I will be able to get rid of my fluorescent light fixtures," Balkowitsch says. "They will be replaced with a Northern facing wall of glass and a large skylight, just as the Victorian artists used to capture their images so many decades ago."

"The Vulnerability of Man" (2017)

"Vincent Night Horse Fox" (2016)

Click here to see more of Shane Balkowitsch's work.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States. To learn more, click here.

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Shane Balkowitsch