Tracker Pixel for Entry

Balkowitsch’s “immortal impressions” in glass and silver

by Sabrina Hornung | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Arts | November 18th, 2015

Shane Balkowitsch is a photographer based out of Bismarck, N.D., though he is no ordinary photographer. He is a wet plate artist meaning his photo process dates back to the mid-1800s. In fact he is the only wet plate artist in the state. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he does demonstrations statewide, thanks to a portable darkroom.

HPR: You are a self-taught ambrotypist. What sparked the passion? Was there one image that started it all?

Shane Balkowitsch: I never had an interest in photography and never owned a camera. My first camera was my 5x7 wet plate camera. I saw an image online and I was fascinated by the look of it, I was immediately drawn to what I was seeing. I asked the photographer,what is that? He said it was a wet plate tintype from the 1848 process. I told him I would love to do that, and he asked if I was a photographer. I told him I did not even own a camera. He told me he had been a photographer for 30 years and he struggles with this process; essentially there is no way a non-photographer could figure this out. Within 45 days I had made my first wet plate.

HPR: Were there any other notable ambrotypists in the Dakota Territory that you are aware of?

SB: Orlando Scott Goff was a wet plate artist that I look up to that worked right here in Bismarck. He had his studio on the second floor of the Block Building on Main Street. He is given credit for capturing the first wet plate of Sitting Bull in 1883.

HPR: Can you describe your process?

SB: Wet plate collodion is one of the earliest forms of photography. Frederick Scott Archer has been credited with inventing this historic process back in 1848. The process became popular worldwide, then quickly died off in the 1880s when a more convenient way of taking photographs was invented. In recent years there has been a small revival of the process when a number of contemporary photographers decided to go back to the roots of photography and embrace the old. Making a wet plate can be difficult, time-consuming, costly, unpredictable and requires a high degree of commitment. The images can be captured on glass (ambrotype) or on metal (tin type). The word ambrotype is translated in Ancient Greek as "immortal impression.” Digital photography today relies on technology; wet plate photography relies on 160-year-old chemistry and a bit of magic and some luck. A wet plate photographer makes a film base on a piece of glass or metal using collodion, submerges it in a silver nitrate solution to make it light sensitive, and then exposes the photograph usually in an old-style wood bellows camera box and usually a brass lens. The process is called wet plate because during the entire process the chemicals on the plates must remain wet and cannot be allowed to dry. The end result is a one-of-a-kind, archival object of art that will last many lifetimes. There are wet plates of Abraham Lincoln that look just as good today as they did a century and a half ago. It is thought that fewer than 1000 people worldwide carry on the tradition of wet plate today. Many of those individuals are professional photographers at the height of their careers.

HPR: How long did it take for you to perfect -- or rather refine -- your process to the point of exhibiting?

SB: I am still refining my technique and my aesthetic. It is rather amazing looking back that I was able to get a wet plate to appear on my first attempt, a portrait of my brother on Oct. 4, 2012. I take a wet plate of him every year on that day to celebrate.

HPR: You do demonstrations at art institutions throughout the state. Do you have some kind of a portable darkroom setup?

SB: What is very difficult and challenging about this process is that the photographer must take his darkroom with him wherever he goes. You cannot take pictures and develop hours or days later, as with modern film; you must do it on-site as the plate remains wet. I use a germination tent on a table to stick my head into (with a dark shroud over my back to block out all the light), and I work with red lights in this confined space when I go off-site.

HPR: I saw that you were featured in View Camera Magazine twice, once when you shot Evander Holyfield and another time when you recreated an image of Gen. Custer, which was originally created by Civil War-era photographer Matthew Brady. What was that like?

SB: It is a huge honor to have made the front cover of View Camera Magazine not once but twice with my images. It is a very respected magazine for anyone who shoots large format photography. The Custer shoot was early on and was a great learning experience. Spending a rushed hour with Evander Holyfield was truly amazing. He was wonderful to work with and he talked intimately about his career, which was really interesting. When I first started with my camera and my one little light fixture in my back warehouse, I had no idea someday that I would be capturing the heavyweight champion of the world.

HPR: Your work is also in the permanent collection at the North Dakota State Historical society -- how does that feel?

SB: It is absolutely amazing that my great-great-great grandchildren will be able to go to the Heritage Center in the future and request to see my work; I can think of no greater honor, and I am doing everything I can to continue to make plates that are worthy of their care. I just made a wet plate yesterday of Monsignor James Shea from the University of Mary, and they want to have that plate for their archive.

HPR: Can you tell us a bit about the camera you use?

SB: Yes, my first-ever camera I had made was my 5x7 camera. In the process of wet plating, cameras are damaged by the silver nitrate as plates are made. I find it very romantic that the tool of a wet plate artist, his or her camera, is destroyed with every image, but it is true. My first 5x7 camera went about 700 plates until one day at Fort Lincoln it developed a light leak and I had to have it repaired with new wood. My present camera is an 8x10, made in Italy, Alessandro Gibellini camera, handmade for me. It is a large format view camera and can accept 5x7, 7x7, 8x10 and 4” round glass plates. I use Carl Zeiss Tessar lenses, 300mm and 360mm, exclusively for all of my studio work.


Recently in:


Women in Bad Lands

by C.S. Hagen

THE BADLANDS – “I just want to flip the proverbial bird to North Dakota as I leave,” Sarah Gulenchyn said. She took a last drag off her American Spirit – burned quick to the filter – before stamping it out. The door to…



by Ryan Janke

In a remote area along the Sheyenne River just southeast of Sheldon, North Dakota lies a sleepy patch of land that comes to life this week as the High Plains Regional Rendezvous kicks off this Saturday.The rendezvous is a week-long…

Thursday, June 20, 6:30 p.m.Zandbroz Variety, 420 N Broadway, FargoNDSU Press and Zandbroz Variety are teaming up for an author event you won’t want to miss. The author event features Denise K. Lajimodiere and the launch of her…

I think Steve Earle described the current state of pop country music best when he said, “The best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women except for Chris Stapleton," he said. "The guys just wanna sing about getting f***ed…


​American Prophet

by Ed Raymond

Bob Dylan: “You Better Start Swimmin’ Or You’ll Sink Like A Stone”I was shocked when Hibbing native Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. I think he was, too. I had always enjoyed his songs as great…

To say that this year’s Bartenders Battle was the best display of talent in the six years since its creation would be an understatement and a disservice to not only the bartenders who made it into the competition, but also the…

All About Food

It’s date night!

by HPR Contributor

By Seng Phengdouangdethsengphengdouangdeth@gmail.comAs things are finally starting to warm up in the region, it’s time to kick that delivery habit you’ve developed all winter long and take your main squeeze out somewhere with…

When asked to describe the sound of Green Blue, Minneapolis based musician Annie Sparrows formerly of the Soviettes and Awesome Snakes laughed and said, “Our friend came up to me after a show and he said ‘Do you like Belle and…

Martin Scorsese embraces the prankster spirit of a longtime inspiration/subject in “Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.” The confounding testimony is as much mockumentary as documentary, combining new interviews and…

You may have seen Nicki Marie slingin’ her elaborately folded paper star creations at various craft and cultural festivals around the region. She was also a recipient of a folk art and traditional apprenticeship grant made…

The Cass Act Players will take the stage this weekend to bring “Weather the Storm” to Bonanzaville’s Dawson Hall in West Fargo.“Weather the Storm” is a musical based on the infamous tornado that hit Fargo’s Golden Ridge…

Stand-up comedy is traditionally a one-way exchange. Outside of the odd question addressed to a random audience member, the limit of the spectators’ contribution to the conversation is their laughter at the comedy stylings being…

If you’re from the region you may have sipped, sampled or caught word of a libation often referred to as “red eye” or “wedding whiskey” at some point. In fact some of our friends of German Russia descent swear by it. If…


Yoga on the Farm

by Ryan Janke

Every Thursday evening during the month of June, Mara Solberg is inviting people to come out and try Yoga on the Farm. It is a unique yoga experience that was born from an idea that was proposed to Solberg.“I’ve been with Red…

by Devin Joubertdevinlillianjoubert@gmail.comIt’s that beautiful time of the year that’s filled with seasonal decorations, sparkly lights, warm family gatherings, and delicious feasts. I love everything about this time of the…

Last Word

The ten year reunion

by HPR Contributor

By Zach Nerpelzachnerpel@gmail.comI was going by “Zach” on this particular evening. Not like I’d go by anything else in any other situation, but tonight it was determined I’d wear a nametag. I showed up to the Fargo Brewing…