A photographer from Bismarck, North Dakota has been taking a special interest in the people of the Northern Plains lately using a photographic method invented in the mid-1800’s. You might have seen some of Shane Balkowitsch’s photographs—the historic yet timeless, black-and-white, detailed images of some of Indian Country’s most recognized voices. And if you haven’t seen his photographs, you have the opportunity to do so—in person—at the Bismarck Arts Galleries Association in Bismarck, North Dakota starting Tuesday, October 31, through Wednesday, November 22, 2017.
On Friday, November 3, 2017, the Bismarck Art Galleries Association is hosting the reception of Shane Balkowitsch’s photograph series, “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective”. A journey that started initially through a single photograph has blossomed into capturing more than 100 photographs and will be showcased in a reception for the public to experience and hear from the photographer’s experience as well as some of the people who have participated in the photography sessions.
Balkowitsch is not your ordinary photographer, he specializes in the wet-plate colloidal process invented in 1851—a process that involves adding a soluble iodide to a solution of collodion (cellulose nitrate) and coating a glass plate with the mixture combined with an exposure time of at least 10 seconds (if everything is set right). In other words, it’s more complicated than researching the latest camera and lighting technology and hoping to capture an image in a mere fraction of a second.
Balkowitsch started his journey with photography in the fall of 2012, where he started teaching himself about the technology and process of capturing images using a method dating back to the 1850’s. Since then, he has captured more than 2,000 wet plate photographs where some of them being showcased in museums throughout the Northern Plains and one—a portrait of Evander Holyfield—acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Some of Balkowitsch’s most striking images are people and places from the Northern Plains of Indian
Country. Each photograph will be featured at the North Dakota Heritage Center’s archives for time immemorial. However, it was his photograph of the Ernie LaPointe, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull, that started the journey that captured some of Indian Country’s most prolific and captivating voices.
“Had I not taken the photograph of Ernie LaPointe I don’t know where we’d be to this day,” said Shane Balkowitsch. “His photograph was my first wet plate to have been curated by the North Dakota Heritage Center and it wasn’t until another year and a half until the idea to continue the series became a reality.”
Starting from a single photograph, Balkowitsch’s wet plate series Northern Plains Indians could not have been accomplished without the help and support of the United Tribes Technical College. Through the collaboration between Balkowitsch, the North Dakota Historical Society, and the United Tribes Technical College one photograph blossomed into an idea to create 50 portraits of Native people from the Northern Plains to—one day—featuring more than 1,000 wet plate photographs of Native people from all over the hemisphere. There will be more than 100 wet plate photographs of the Northern Plains Indians: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective featured at Bismarck Art Galleries Association until November 22, 2017.
Margaret Landin, United Tribes Technical College Activities Coordinator said that the collaboration between herself and Shane Balkowitsch wasn't planned, and their connection was instant. Her first encounter was during a photo shoot of her uncle (also included in the series) Monte Yellowbird, Sr. when she was asked to braid his hair.
“I realized upon initially meeting him that he was very passionate about his work,” said Margaret Landin. “He wanted to understand the cultural components to each person and wasn’t sure how to ask and that’s when he asked me to continue to help him develop the series.”
It was the help, generosity, and attention to detail of Landin that helped produce more than 140 photographs for the opening gallery.
“Had it not been for Margaret Landin, I don't know where the series would be,” said Balkowitsch. “She is one of the main reasons this project has had the success it has.”
Other photos have been created as well, including some controversial images challenging the mistreatment of American Indian peoples since photography was invented as well as images intended to challenge the Dakota Access Pipeline. When expressing a revision in his photography, Balkowitsch voiced, “I have had hundreds of Native Americans into my studio and not once have I had a bad experience. I receive nothing but love and gratitude for what I am trying to achieve with my wet plates and when things started heating up with the Dakota Access Pipeline my immediate thoughts were how I could be of any help.”
“What kind of friend or man would I be to turn my back and not find myself on the correct side of the issue?” said Balkowitsch. “I had no choice.”
As soon as the Dakota Access Pipeline protest lines formed in early August of 2016, Shane was at the frontline using a 165-year-old process to capture what would soon become the largest protest camp in American history. Although expressing all he could offer was his photography to the conversation regarding the Dakota Access Pipeline, he has shaken things up in some noticeable ways both within his personal life as well as in public discourse. Some of his photos taken at the frontline were shared with various media sources throughout North Dakota creating immediate interest from several publications wanting to share the messages behind the photographs. That is when, of course, his intentions started reaching a wider audience and some not so expected reactions came from not only the general public but even his friends and family.
“Since the protests began with the Dakota Access Pipeline, I’ve been attacked on several occasions for simply photographing ‘those Indians’,” said Balkowitsch. “I’ve lost over 750 followers on Facebook from people I’ve known for years as well as people I don’t know. The most bizarre was having a small group of white people threatens to boycott my business.”
Balkowitsch recanted, “But I have not gone through anything compared to my friends that have been abused by rubber bullets, pepper spray, and freezing water. For the first time in my life, I am ashamed to be from my home state, and I have always been proud.”
During the course of his many photo sessions, Shane shared he has always had a pleasant experience in photographing people and befriending many of the people in his studio causing him to want to learn more about Native American history and learned about the many tragedies Native people have faced from the American people/government.
With each photo shoot taking at least several hours, Balkowitsch’s images of the original people and places of the Northern Plains capture significant moments of time. In his words, the images people see of his photography are roughly 10 seconds of a person’s life—a miniature movie—and will last hundreds upon hundreds of years.
The quality, attention to detail and emotion captured in each wet plate photograph can, of course, imply a well-funded production. However, Northern Plains Indians: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective is an entirely donated curation. The time, resources, materials, people, both in the photograph and behind the scenes, donate their time and passion to develop the series.
“Shane has been a donor to the archives since 2014,” said North Dakota Archives Specialist Emily Ergen. “He has been a huge advocate of the archives as well as the wet plate photographic process. His talents, exceptional speaking abilities and passion for his art have propelled him into the spotlight and brought attention to a historical photographic process that has been overshadowed by digital technologies.”
Photographers use their cameras as tools of exploration, passports to inner sanctums, instruments for change. Their images are proof that photography matters—now more than ever.
Since photography was invented in 1839, it has served as a means of documenting the world and all it contains. It has been used throughout history as a tool for exploration, as a means of documenting people, places, and events, for telling stories, and as a mode of communication and even critique in cultures throughout the world. Of course, photography is being continually reinvented and rethought, shaped as much by technological advances as it is by the ever-changing dialogues surrounding photography’s use.
The impact of Balkowitsch’s work in incalculable and his dedication to preserving history by
documenting to people of today for future generations to enjoy will result in a richer understanding of life among Native Americans both from the great State of North Dakota and beyond.
The photographs can be enjoyed and experienced from October 31 through November 22, 2017, at the Bismarck Art Galleries Association and for time immemorial at the North Dakota Historical Society’s archives at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. The opening reception will feature a presentation by the North Dakota Historical Society, wet plate photographer Shane Balkowitsch, Native American flute player Darren Thompson and a presentation by Dana Wasinzi and Grammy-award winning drum group Lakota Thunder. In addition, the many people included in the series will be in attendance with the families and loved ones.