North Dakota exhibit documents history with contemporary Native American portraits
The new show, opening at the Spirit Room in Fargo later this month, features the work of Bismarck wet plate photographer Shane Balkowitsch.
FARGO — Pens, pencils and notebooks are commonplace on back-to-school shopping lists, but people in the Fargo-Moorhead area may add another item to theirs: A historical and culturally significant work of art.
Bismarck artist Shane Balkowitsch will open his new exhibit, “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective,” at the Spirit Room on Saturday, Aug. 20. The show consists of photographs of contemporary Native Americans and all of his proceeds from sales of the prints will go to the American Indian College Fund.
The show is his first exhibit of museum-quality prints from the glass plates he creates in his Nostalgic Wet Plate Studio in Bismarck. He has shown prints taken from scans of the glass plates and has also exhibited some of the plates themselves. Wanting to make them accessible, he priced 11-by-14-inch framed prints at $250.
These prints were created by master printer Luc Brefeld in the Netherlands.
“I never liked my work in print until I found Luc. They normally pale in comparison to the glass plate, but these are the best representation of those plates,” Balkowitsch says.
Glass plates can of course be fragile and there’s only one for each image. Balkowitsch usually gives the glass plates to a museum as an historical document. By creating these prints off the plate, the photographer is giving his fans and collectors a chance to take home a museum-quality print.
“This is like a curator’s print,” the artist says.
He got interested in wet plate photography, in which an image is recorded on glass instead of film, about a decade ago. The process dates back to about 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.
Years ago he started focusing on American Indian portraits, inviting in anyone who wanted their photo to be taken for free. He leaves it up to the guest to decide what to wear. Many wear some kind of traditional regalia, but one came in medical scrubs and another wore his cowboy hat.
Rather than a straight photographer/subject relationship, he views the process as a collaboration between the two in an effort to document contemporary Native Americans.
“The real reason I’m doing this is to document history,” he says.
He enjoys it when guests pull up an old photo that their ancestor sat for years ago, including Ernie Wayne LaPointe, great-grandson of Sitting Bull.
In 2019, the year she became one of the first Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress, Deb Haaland sat for him. Haaland is now the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to serve in the Cabinet.
While photographing American Indians is the bulk of his photo work, he’s completed other notable projects, including documenting the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016 .
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 restored .
Earlier this year, the same week he was the big winner at the Grammy Awards, musician John Batiste visited the photographer’s studio for a portrait .
Balkowitsch has donated his American Indian portrait plates to the Historical Societies of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota as well as about 50 other museums, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
He has created 615 plates and wants to reach 1,000 eventually. He has donated any proceeds from these photos and the two volumes of the photo books “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective” to the American Indian College Fund for years.
He funds his studio through commissioned portrait sessions and as CEO of Balkowitsch Enterprises, an online sales company.