Words by Jessica Wachter / Black and white photography by Tom Wirtz /Color photos courtesy of Shane Balkowitsch
It’s never too late to follow your true calling or passion. As an artist, nothing makes me happier than seeing others chase after their dreams; which is why I’m so excited to introduce you to Shane Balkowitsch of Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio. He is an artist who couldn’t stop himself from following his passion. What’s even more intriguing is that his passion executes the extremely rare artform of wet plate ambrotype photography dating back to the 1800s. Follow me inside Balkowitsch’s unique, natural light studio in the prairies of Bismarck, N.D.
Balkowitsch is a wet plate artist, mastering a technique that is considered one of the earliest forms of photography. Although it was once common in the mid-1800s, it’s practically unheard of today. We are in an era where we can easily snap hundreds of digital photos in minutes, and as a result, wet plate photography has become a lost art. In fact, it is believed there are less than 1,000 wet plate photographers in the entire world. What a treat to have one right here, in the Midwest!
A Painstaking Process
According to Balkowitsch, 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 antique brass lens from the 1800’s. 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,” said Balkowitsch. “Every day the world is filled with millions and millions of digital photographs that have no value, character, significance or physical form, that is not the case with each and every wet plate. The wet plate process is magical and the end result is tangible and precious.”
Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio
To properly execute his artform, Balkowitsch needed a studio to suit his unique process. Finding a perfect location in his own backyard, Balkowitsch got to work designing his studio space on the prairie.
“The studio took two years of planning and eight months to construct,” said Balkowitsch. “It is the first natural light, wet plate studio built from the ground up in North America in over 100 years.”
“The windows were custom made from a greenhouse manufacturer. Modern-day glass would not work for this project because it has UV protection. I need UV to make a proper wet plate in the historical process, so to solve this dilemma, I figured out that the greenhouse industry was the solution,” explained Balkowitsch. “Greenhouses are an industry that wants as much natural UV into a space as possible, and that is the solution I came up with. The glass is specialty glass that allows 95% of the natural UV light from the sun to enter the creative space. I even took the window size and pitch from a Dr. Felix Raymer, who wrote a book in the early 1900s on how to build the best natural light studio.”
Inside the Studio
I had the honor of doing a photoshoot with Balkowitsch last year, on my birthday. What a pleasure to experience his process, firsthand.
It took Balkowitsch over an hour to set up for the shoot. This mindful and meticulous preparation is an important part of his artistic process. This included, among many other things, preparing the lighting, adjusting my positioning, and preparing the wet plate. The wet plate is a piece of glass where the image from the photoshoot will eventually appear.
In a dark room, the light of the camera shone on me, and while illuminated, I had to sit perfectly still. Compared to how quickly photos are taken in our current times, I felt as though I was sitting there for an eternity. Once that was complete, I got to watch him bathe the wet plate in various liquid chemical solutions. This is where the image started to come to life.
Embracing the Unexpected
It wasn’t until the lights were on, that the final product was revealed. And I found out that the final product may be very different than what was originally expected. Why? For many reasons. For example, there could be imperfections in the wet plate itself. Or, it’s possible for solutions to interact differently with the wet plate than anticipated. There are many different components that affect the final composition.
The artform shifts, very quickly, from relying on meticulous planning to letting go of all expectations. I found this fascinating. The way wet plate photography preserves moments that not only stand the test of time but embody thoughtfulness and beauty. Balkowitsch’s intent certainly aligns with the essence of his artform.
Leaving a Legacy
Balkowitsch’s work is finding a renewed appreciation all over the world as his pieces have recently been featured or requested in Native American museums spanning the distance from Bismarck to Arizona and India.
Behind his art, there lies a purpose, as Balkowitsch explained, “I hope I leave a legacy of kindness and understanding for my Native American friends. If I am able to achieve this goal of 1,000 original wet plates for that, I think I cannot ask for anything more. At the end of the day, it is all about the final piece, but it is also about the friendships that I am making along the way. I want to continue to use my camera for change.”