Before winning Grammys, Jon Batiste sat for a famed North Dakota photographer
Shane Balkowitsch is known for old-style portraits of Native Americans and personalities. Now, the Bismarck photographer can add Grammy-winning musician to his list of subjects.
BISMARCK — Jon Batiste was the big winner at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards on April 3, taking home five statues.
He took home another prize the previous week after a visit to a Bismarck artist.
The New York-based musician sat for photographer Shane Balkowitsch in his Nostalgic Wet Plate Studio on March 29.
“He wanted to break away from city life and come to North Dakota,” the photographer says.
Batiste was in the area visiting the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to hear traditional Indian drummers, Balkowitsch says. Tribal members arranged for Batiste to visit the photo studio as they wanted to give Batiste something special to commemorate his visit. They also gave the musician a star quilt, which he is seen wrapped in in one of the photos.
Balkowitsch has been active creating wet plate portraits of American Indians for years. In 2019, the year she became one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, Deb Haaland sat for him. Haaland is now the Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet.
Balkowitsch has donated some of his plates to the North Dakota State Historical Society.
“When you give things away out into the world, you get something back and you really appreciate it,” he said.
Batiste arrived at the studio later in the day, prompting the photographer to rearrange his lights rather than utilize natural light from his big windows. Still, he was able to capture three images of the musician on glass plates.
In wet plate photography, an image is recorded on glass instead of film. The process was started around 1850 and utilizes a glass plate coated with a collodion, a sensitive, syrupy solution, then exposed inside the camera and developed, all within about 20 minutes.
The result of the longer exposure creates a clear image with high resolution and no grain or pixels.
In videos captured by Balkowitsch’s colleague, Chad Noland, Batiste is visibly thrilled watching the plates develop.
“That’s deep,” the pianist exclaims.
“If I can get them in the front door of the studio, get them into the process, I’m going to win them over,” Balkowitsch says, calling wet plate “the most glorious photographic process man ever invented.”
He captured Batiste’s image on three distinct plates — one going to the musician, one to be donated to the New Orleans Jazz Museum, and one to be given to the North Dakota State Historical Society.
For one of the photos, Batiste was seated at Balkowitsch’s daughter Alyvia’s electric piano.
“Without an instrument, it's hard to make a statement about a musician,” Ballkowitsch says. “Throughout the shoot he was serenading everyone. He can’t be in a room with a piano without playing the piano.”
Balkowitsch has since had a little plaque made and screwed into the piano marking the date Batiste played it.
“It was a fabulous little thing,” Balkowitsch says.
Just days later, the family stayed up until the end of the Grammys on April 3 to cheer on Batiste, who closed the show by winning Album of the Year for “We Are.”
“That’s always going to be something special,” Balkowitsch says, adding that it was a good experience for his three daughters to show how someone who had been in their studio one day was winning the highest musical honors in front of a national audience a few days later.
The day after the Grammys, Balkowitsch posted that he would sell 100 prints of a Batiste image for $50 each, with proceeds going to the American Indian College Fund, a fundraising effort he has done in the past.
The photographer will be in Fargo later this month when the Fargo Theatre screens “Balkowitsch,” a documentary about him, on April 29. Directed by Gregory DeSaye and Chelsy Ciavarella, the film looks at the artist, his process and some of his higher-profile shoots.
In 2016, he shot photos during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and in 2019 he photographed climate activist Greta Thunberg during her visit to Standing Rock Reservation . One of the images of Thunberg, called “Standing For Us All,” was to be displayed as a mural in Bismarck , but plans were canceled after threats of vandalism . The piece was instead installed in downtown Fargo , where it was vandalized and then restore d.
“Balkowitsch” was to be highlighted during the 2020 Fargo Film Festival, which was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The photographer is excited to finally bring it to Fargo.
“We’re excited to see it in the theater,” he says.
The artist invited Allan Demaray, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikira tribe of Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, to play flute before the movie, and Balkowitsch will answer questions after the screening of the hourlong movie.
If you go
What: “Balkowitsch” documentary screening
When: 8 p.m. Friday, April 29
Where: Fargo Theatre
Info: Tickets are $10