I had the pleasure to make an interview with American photographer, Shane B. Bolkowitsch, regarding his new book called, “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective”, and we talked about his early passion of imagination to create things, his inspiration from photographers like William Mortensen, Ansel Adams and Julia Margaret Cameron, his goal to make 1000 plates, his experience in meeting Dakota Goodhouse “Two Wars” and his expectation for society in order to find tolerance, acceptance, and love for others in the 21st Century.
Carolina Rodríguez Hernández (CRH): Can you describe to us a childhood experience, which influenced your business career, especially your relation with photography?
Shane Balkowitsch (SB): I have been asked this many times and I have had time to think about this over the years. I have come to the conclusion that I was greatly influenced by fascination with the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Long before we had computers we were using our imagination to create worlds with wizards and dragons. As a young boy of 10 years old I spent hundreds of hours playing this game for days on end with friends. We learned about Gods and Demons, we learned about sorcery and magic, it was all very romantic. Much of my work addresses the supernatural and the unknown and I really think this was a large influence on me.
CRH: Could you give us an insight into the creative process behind Northern Plains, Native Americans? What was the first step to take action and get involved in this book project?
SB: I did not know any Native Americans before Ernie LaPointe, the Great Grandson of Sitting Bull entered my studio on September 6th, 2014.
Ernie spent much time with me on that day explaining his culture and I immediately felt the importance of his heritage. We remain friends to this day and he continues to support me on this creative journey. His wet plate “Eternal Field” was the plate that opened the door for my work at the State Historical Society North Dakota and all other plates, over 500 of them so far have followed his plate. I received such fabulous feedback about my portrait session with him it occurred to me that it would be wonderful if I did a small series of say 50 plates of Native Americans, just as Orlando Scott Goff did before me. But how was I going to find 50 Native Americans to trust me. Slowly people started arriving, there have been no advertising, all word or mouth. Quickly 50 plates became 100 and then I decided to really challenge myself to take 1000 plates for the series. At the present rate, this will take me over 15 years to complete. As of last week I made plate 398 for the series since that day with Ernie. I really consider it my life’s work. I was always focused and dedicated to this achievement but when I received my own Native American name “Shadow Catcher” in a formal ceremony in my studio, the weight of the series seems even greater.
CRH: Which photographers has inspired you throughout your career? Why?
SB: William Mortensen is a very creative photographer in the early 1900’s that has always inspired me. He was doing amazing techniques that was like nothing else from his time. Ansel Adams called him “The Anti-Christ”, it does not get any better than that. I have also been a great fan of Julia Margaret Cameron, in my opinion the greatest female photographer from the Victorian Era. Her work is now legendary and I always look to her work for inspiration. Take a look at either of these photographers works and you will quickly realize why they are at the top of my list.
CRH: What is a good personal experience in defining A Modern Wet Plate Perspective? What are your challenges?
SB: I have had many photographers fly in from all over the country to visit my natural light studio. I have numerous classes both from the University of Mary and Bismarck State College out to my studio each year for talks and demonstrations. When I first started I had no idea that anyone would ever be interested in my work. I was just in a warehouse with no windows doing the best that I could to create that next image. There is a constant comparison with analog versus digital photography and there are arguments on what is superior. In my mind, nothing can even compare to analog. There is something very tangible and precious about holding a silver on glass plate in her hand. As the artist, I am aware that this is the only one of its kind and that it can never be duplicated, something very unique to this type of photography. The photographer is more like a painter with light and silver, and I adore that thought. I think I added the words a “A Modern Wet Plate Perspective” to show that this process still has value. Many photographers have tried this process, but very few stay. This process is all that I know so all of the difficulties, burdens and hindrances that are not disadvantages to me. For instance, 10 seconds of exposure, I have had many photographers not believe me when I post these long exposure times with a portrait, but there it is, every heartbeat, a couple shallow breaths, a quick blink and even a thought is all captured in these 10 seconds. It is as if these are 10 seconds still life movies of my sitters. I like that thought. I really believe these long exposures are one of the reasons people are so drawn to these images whether they understand that difficulty or not.
CRH: Can you tell us more about this four series?
SB: My goal is 1000 plates for the series, so every 250 plates, I will do another book. Each book will have 50 of my favorite images from those 250 plates. So at the end of the series there will be 4 books on the shelf representing the years of work.
CRH: Can you tell us about when and how was your approach to the well plate technique?
SB: October 4th, 2012 is the date that I made my first wet plate. I had never owned a camera before, I had never taken a class, never read a book on the topic or even had any interest in photography. I saw a wet plate online and find out what it was and I jumped down the rabbit hole to never look back. My first plate was of my brother Chad Balkowitsch and I take his portrait every year on that day to celebrate that very first plate. I have numbered and dated each and every plate from that day and as of this last Friday I have made 3478 plates. Most of them 8×10” black glass ambrotypes.
CRH: What is the single most inspiring pictures you shoot with Native Americans? Which was the most difficult to shoot and why?
SB: I still think that “Eternal Field” with Ernie Lapointe is my favorite Native American plate, it represented the start of my series. I had only begun taking images outside at that point and it was difficult to get the exposure correctly. There was a large garbage can just a few feet out of the frame and there were cars driving behind him while I was doing the exposure. They were simply moving too fast to capture them in my slow historic process. I also think one of the most difficult shoots was also when I captured one of the first Native Americans Congresswomen in the process. Deb Haaland’s plane was late and I only had 45 minutes to capture plates for the Historical Society of North Dakota, the Historical Society of New Mexico, a personal plate for her and a plate for me. 4 plates in 45 minutes was insane.
CRH: Do you have a phrase that want to share with us from Dakota Goodhouse? What did you learn from Dakota Goodhouse and Ernie LaPointe?
SB: I continue to learn from each of these gentlemen all of the time. Almost every week I hear from one of them or the other. Dakota lives here in Bismarck with me and he visits my studio. I send him scans of my Native American series for his review and he sends me scans of his art work that he does for a series he is working on. It is very rewarding to think that we are creating at the same time together. Dakota was also a witness at my naming ceremony and I am forever in his debt for that. Ernie and I talk all of the time on the phone. Sometimes when I am struggling with something about the series or just something in life, he has given me sage words of wisdom. I value his friendship so much and I want to always make him proud of my efforts. My life has been enriched by both of these men, and I am forever grateful.
CRH: What role does music play in your creative process?
SB: Funny you should ask. When people come into my studio they will always hear music and not just any music. Since I practice analog photography it makes sense that I only share analog music in my studio, so you never know what vinyl album will be on the turntable. I find that music can set the mood for a shoot and it also serves as a way of helping my sitters relax for the enduring long exposures. Music is always playing in my studio anytime I am in there.
CRH: Was there a particular human exchange you can describe which inspired you towards taking charitable action regarding the causes you love?
SB: Many of the people that enter my studio are complete strangers, I have never met them before they step foot into my natural light studio. So many times these people enter as strangers but leave as friends. I think it is the process and the sharing that we do while I take their portraits that creates these lasting relationships. There is a trust that must occur in order to do the best job that I can with my camera. If you look at it romantically, this is a dance with me the photographer and my sitter. I can do my job behind the camera, but the sitter must also perform and do what they need to so that we achieve the best plate that is possible at that time. There is a connection and I feel it all of the time. There are many Fridays that a sitter will come into my studio and watch the plate come to life in the fixer and at that moment they are so happy and are brought to tears. When is the last time someone looked at a portrait of themselves and they had tears in their eyes. I do not take any credit for this, but I feel the process gives this response to not only my sitter but to me as well. I will never take it for granted and it never gets old.
CRH: You take a photograph for the upcoming volume of Greta Thunberg? How is she as a person, not as a global leader?
“Greta Thunberg has a presence about her that is indescribable. She is very quiet and reserved but there is something about her charisma that is rarely felt…”
SB: I always did not understand how Greta was able to achieve what she has until I met her and then I could understand. She has a presence about her that is indescribable. She is very quiet and reserved but there is something about her charisma that is rarely felt. She is an amazing young lady and I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend just 20 minutes with her. The plate “Greta” is now at the Nordiska Museet in her home country of Sweden and “Standing For Us All” is at the Library of Congress” for all time.
CRH: What advice can you share with the world on the importance of empowering others to reach one’s full potential? How do you empower others in your daily life?
SB: I went 44 years without having a creative outlet, when I found wet plate I quickly realized that I could make a difference and impact in people’s lives through my work. My work is not about just capturing famous people or Native Americans for that matter, it is about capturing everyone. Everyone in my mind deserves to have an important portrait in their life and I am doing my best to share this very important historic process with as many people as possible. I feel that wet plate collodion is just as valid today as it was 165 years ago and the same will be true 200 years from now.
CRH: Would you describe yourself as a spiritual person? If so can you share with us one of your more profound spiritual experiences?
SB: I do not consider myself a religious person but certainly a spiritual person. I am also an Oncology Nurse by trade and there are so many times that I was with a person during their last breaths and that makes an impact on a person. One quickly realizes that our time here on Earth is very limited. It is a universal truth no matter what walk of life you come from. I really like the idea that my work will be here long after all of us are gone and I find some reassurance in that thought. I am not sure why I have the need to leave some sort of proof of my existence, I am not sure everyone feels this way, but I surely do. I have taken portraits of a few people that have already left this world and it seems that my portrait of the person that has passed away is very important to the family. My images have been used many times to celebrate the life of someone who is no longer with us, and I feel that if I can do that one thing for the family of those left behind, what more can I ask for?
CRH: What must society learn from Native Americans and the way to respect them?
SB: Society has a long way to go in this regard. I saw firsthand at the Dakota Access Pipeline disputes that nothing has really changed. Native Americans are the first people of this great continent and their knowledge about the land and unique perspective on life should be celebrated. We took their lands and we placed them on reservations. It was a very terrible scar on the history of this country and many people want to just dismiss it as if it did not happen. I want my work to prove that Native Americans are still here, that they still have a voice, they still have their culture, they still have their beliefs. People see my work sometimes and I have been accused of stealing images from the 1800’s and claiming it as my own. This puts a smile on my face because I feel I must be doing something right for someone to be so wrong. The most important thing that we can do is to simply listen to them. There is so much knowledge that can be obtained if you open yourself up to simply listening.
CRH: What is your greatest hope for the future? What is next for Shane Balkowitsch?
SB: As I type this we are in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. I am locked into my house with my family trying to do what we can to help stop the spread of this terrible disease. I feel that these trying times bring out the best in all of us and at the same time the worst. What I hope for society is that we find tolerance, acceptance, and love for others. I teach my children to appreciate other people that are different than ourselves. There is so much to learn from others. We need to all appreciate each other for our uniqueness and the intrinsic value that each person has. It seems that humanity is being tested like never before. I hope that love will prevail and with that love a more beautiful and happy life can be had by all.
As for what is next for me, I simply have no idea. I could have never imagined that I would find myself in this position after only 7 years of taking photographs but here I am. I am very grateful that this creative path has opened up for me. The work is very important to me but equally important for me is the beautiful people that this process has brought into my life.
CRH: How would you like to be remembered?
SB: I simply would like for my work to stand on its own. I am too close to my own work to realize what is good or not. I will leave it to other people to make those determinations. I know one thing, with my work at 21 different museums and archives around the world, my work will surely outlive me and I find comfort in that thought.
CRH: Do you want to one day create pictures of Native people in Mexico?
SB: I hope to capture as many people as I can from as many different walks of life as possible. I hope my work is a snapshot of life here during this time. We always think that history is something in the past, but what we need to realize is that we are making history today.