A Frame in Time: Photography with Shane Balkowitsch | Midwest Living
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A Frame in Time: Photography with Shane Balkowitsch

While you mull over Instagram filters, this North Dakota native is perfecting a Civil War-Era photo process that inspired them.

First camera at 44. Shane Balkowitsch had never owned a camera when he saw a wet-plate photo in 2012 and “immediately fell in love.” The vintage aura on glass sparked his curiosity. His tenacity took over when a veteran photog told him to forget about the complicated craft. Six weeks of research later, Shane made his first image with a custom wooden camera. “I’ve always been meant to do this. I just didn’t know it until I was 44,” Shane says.

Photo courtesy of Shane Balkowitsch.

No film. #nofilter. He now claims 2,000-plus glass wet plates to his name (some at state and national galleries). The style harks back to photography’s teething years before the Civil War. It gave way to more efficient film technology before 1900. But it remains the purest photo format, Shane says, because it forgoes film by printing silver directly onto tin or glass plates. Each image resembles an oversized negative with zero visible grains or pixels. Shane is part of a resurgence, with an estimated 1,000 artists practicing the black-and-white chemistry today.

Shooting for posterity. Wet plates require precision, thoughtful composition and patience—a subject must hold still for a 10-second exposure, then wait at least 20 minutes to see  a single shot. “There’s something romantic about this process,” Shane says. His shop, Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio in Bismarck, offers personal photo sessions and is booked six months out. Mortality drives this father’s faith in tin and glass over paper and bytes. Shane says his grandchildren’s great-great-grandkids could hold his images without deterioration. “I am not making plates for this generation. I am always thinking about hundreds of years from now.”

One Hour With the Champ In 2015 a friend landed Shane a studio session with world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Shane made five plates. The Smithsonian Institution asked for the image above, Holyfield kept one shot, and Shane has the other three.

Wet-plate photos require an on-site darkroom. Photo courtesy of Shane Balkowitsch.

More information: sharoncol.balkowitsch.com/wetplate.htm

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