Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy – Nostalgic Wet Plate Photography
Off the beaten path adventure travel indeed (sometimes) includes trudging through knee deep snow to be photographed by a world class photographer who uses a method that less than a 1000 people in the world use! So, while visiting some of our family in North Dakota, U.S.A., my sister-in-law and photographer/graphic designer, Kristin, arranged this once in a lifetime experience to be photographed by Shane Balkowitsch at Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Photography, and my wife and I jumped on the opportunity!
Frankly, we couldn’t have been happier with the experience. The bottom line is that if you’re looking for a naturally gifted photographer to take your portrait in a manner that will provide you with your next family heirloom (we’ll explain this in a moment), and if you’re looking for a very off the beaten path experience in America’s vast northern Great Plains, you too will want to get in touch with Shane. If you do reach out to Shane, whether you do so in the snowy or warmer months, we promise, you’ll not only make a portrait that will last a lifetime, but you’ll also come away with memories that will do the same!
Wet Plate Collodion Photography
Just as we approached the studio in a nontraditional manner, so too did we spend a very unique and whimsical four hours with Shane in his studio. He shared with us the art, and educated us about the science, history and the meticulous process of wet plate collodion photography. Less than 1000 people in the world practice this nearly 150 year old photographic method. Very much oversimplified, it requires Shane to coat a perfectly flat plate of black glass with a paper thin layer of liquid photosensitive silver nitrate. Then he uses the coated plate as the “film” in his bellows camera.
To prepare each wet plate photograph, inside his dark room, it took Shane nearly 20 minutes to coat the plate and complete a few other processes, and then, quickly before the plate dried, he rushed the still-wet plate, in a portable dark box, out into his studio and then into his bellows camera.
Have a look at a small part of the process.
The Extreme Sports of Photography
With the wet plate safely loaded into his camera, Shane had only about three minutes to capture an image on the plate before it dried, lest all his prep time and his expensive supplies, would all be wasted. Adding to the challenge and risk-factor is that if the subjects do not hold completely still for the entire 10-second exposure, the portrait will be blurry and thus ruined.
I never before imagined how hard it was to hold completely still for 10-seconds straight, but trust me when I say, it was tough!
After Shane completed the exposure, he headed back to the dark room for another nearly 40 minutes to rinse, set and clean the image. All in, it took Shane about an hour to shoot one wet plate photograph. Collodion wet plate photography is the extreme sports version of photography in every sense, and it contrasts starkly with the cheap and easy digital photographs we are all familiar with snapping at a moments notice and at nearly no expense.
Shane Created For Us Family Heirlooms
The wet plate photography process, from start to finish is necessarily intentional, and the intentionality shows through in the stunning, one of a kind images Shane creates on his delicate plates of deep black glass. They are one of a kind for two reasons. First, people are not able to copy the glass plates. Quite literally, it is impossible to copy the countless silver molecules that make up the image. Second, and more obviously, since we have not yet achieved time travel, no one is able to recreate the moment Shane captures in his unique 10-second exposure. Every plate Shane creates is a one of a kind original.
By focusing his camera on an uninterrupted 10-seconds of someone’s life, and enshrining it in an unreplicable medium, Shane does more than simply create portraits, he captures time on glass. The time he captured for us, forever cast in silver and glass, is something we already treasure and will certainly do so for our entire lifetime. Shane creates portraits, but more pointedly, he creates images of people distilled, of people striped away to their true essence. Staring at our own portraits, we saw ourselves in a way we had never seen before. This is the magic Shane creates and is eager to share with the world.
Calm Amidst the Storm
Shane is able to create exquisite wet plate photographs because he has intense focus, refined skills, deep knowledge of how to use his highly specialized and expensive equipment and most essentially, a true innate gift for photography. He has a portrait of Evander Holyfield in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. He has taken a portrait of Sitting Bull’s Grandson, and he has achieved countless other accolades. He is an intensely driven guy. Yet in spite of the necessary sense of urgency and intensity Shane creates when the scant and precious time is ticking down for capturing an image on one of his wet plates, while we were hanging out with Shane, his quirky and artistic aura lulled us into a relaxing and chilled out vibe.
The nearly four hours we spent with Shane, during which he created four wet plate photographs, flew by and we found ourselves reluctantly leaving his cozy studio and most certainly looking forward to paying him a visit the next time we find ourselves in North Dakota.