By Sabrina Hornung
On August 20, the Spirit Room in Downtown Fargo will be hosting an opening reception for Shane Balkowitsch’s exhibition, “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective,” from 5-7pm.
Now, you may have caught his exhibit at the Rourke in 2018 and you may have spotted his work at the Plains Art Museum – but this exhibition is different. For the first time ever, he will be exhibiting prints of his work, priced to sell and with the intention of raising money for the American Indian college fund.
The work shown will be 20 new pieces in celebration of the release of the latest edition of his book, “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective.” His goal is to shoot 1,000 Native American portraits in four volumes. He is currently on his second volume, and his wet plate count is currently at 618 portraits. Volume Three will start at 750.
“This is my first time I've ever done any prints, because the majority of the plates aren't in my personal collection. Nobody's really had the opportunity to buy any of my work per se. You know, I mean, like, you can't really buy a plate,” said the Bismarck-based self-taught wet plate artist.
A wet plate photographer uses collodion to create a film base on a piece of glass or metal. It is then submerged in a silver nitrate solution, making it light-sensitive. The photo is usually exposed in a wood bellows camera box and with a brass lens.
The images created are called ambrotypes and are the photo positives captured in silver on glass. The photo process used by Balkowitsch dates back to 1848, but soon went to the wayside by the 1880s, once photo technology became more convenient.
Balkowitsch has often said that he’s never been truly happy with his work once it was printed on paper, but thanks to a mutual friend he was directed to a master printmaker in the Netherlands. All prints will be on paper of suitable quality to be used in archives, and embossed, stamped, and signed by Balkowitsch.
“I've never seen my work so well represented on paper before. I'm all about the plates. I'm never about prints because it's just a failed comparison. These do a really good job.” He said.
When we caught up with Shane, he had just recently gotten back from a photo retreat in Slovenia with his daughter Abby, who is also a wet plate artist. The trip had been a few years in the making but paused due to COVID.
Along with talking shop, the group held an intimate exhibition in a cave deep within an ancient forest in Slovenia. The work shown was a collaborative project Balkowitsch dreamt up seven years ago, with the centerpiece being a gas mask.
“Come on, he said. “When's the last time you saw an art exhibition in a cave? It wasn’t like you could just pull up to the curb and say, okay.. let me go into the cave, you know? And then you're trekking three quarters of a mile through dense – I mean, you need a machete to get up and down those crags–it was insane.” He went on to say, “It was amazing and hard to believe we got the work in there. So I mean, it was an adventure just getting to the cave. It was crazy!”
Seven years and 101 wet plate artists later, according to Balkowitsch, this may have been the largest modern wet plate collaboration of all time. The work shown was a series of prints, and of course the weight and fragility of the work was taken into consideration. The originals are safely stashed in a vault, awaiting the perfect exhibition opportunity.
IF YOU GO "Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective” Tuesday, August 16, 1pm to Friday, September 30, 5pm Reception: Saturday, August 20 at 5pm Spirit Room, 111 Broadway, Downtown Fargo Event Link:http://www.spiritroom.net/
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