In a well-tuned internal combustion engine, ten seconds at 5,000 revs per minute is enough time for a crankshaft to rotate 833 times. Ten seconds for the average person is at least a couple of eye blinks and a few inhalations of oxygen. And that ten seconds, to wet plate photographer Shane Balkowitsch of Bismarck, North Dakota, is a lifetime. Ten seconds is roughly how long, after pulling the lens cap off his large-format camera, a sitter would have to remain motionless for a clear portrait to be captured on glass plate.

A wet plate/collodion self portrait of Shane in his natural light photography in his North Dakota studio. [Shane Balkowitsch]
“There’s no getting back that ten seconds of exposure, there’s no getting back that part of your life, that’s gone,” Shane says in the inspirational documentary about his art, simply called Balkowitsch. Created by Chelsy Claravella and Gregory DeSaye, this is a film that provides insight not only into Shane’s wet plate photography, but also the importance of pursuing one’s passion regardless the creative endeavor. In the film, Shane continues, “I can sit you in that chair and we can do the same pose and we’ll never get back to that ten seconds of life. So, I’m capturing some person’s life in silver, and that silver will be here for generations to come.”

Shane in 2013 with his outlaw Porsche 356 and BMW R75 custom, from a Vintagent article that year. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Having never owned a camera or been intrigued by photography, wet plate photography is a process Shane knew nothing about until he was 44 years old. Creatively wandering, Shane had dabbled with oil painting, marionette making, and motorcycle building. In 2010, Shane was nearing the completion of a 1965 Porsche 356 restoration. He’d enjoyed that project to the extent he wanted to do something similar, but this time with a German-engineered BMW motorcycle. Having zero motorcycle experience didn’t bother him. Instead, he searched for a competent builder and discovered Josh Withers of Los Angeles. Although a renowned creator of café-style BMW machines, Josh earns his living working as an award-winning professional photographer and instructor; some of his commercial clients include Beats By Dre, Diet Pepsi and Nissan. He’s also famous for shooting musicians, such as the Foo Fighters, Faster Pussycat and Tame Impala. While collaborating with Josh on his 1971 BMW R75 build, Shane learned of the archaic wet plate photography format purely by accident. Searching for motorcycle images and other information online, he stumbled across a photo of esteemed editor/photographer Paul d’Orleans standing in the back of his Sprinter van, working on the wet plate process for one of his Moto Tintype projects. For a reason Shane can’t completely comprehend, he was deeply moved by that image. “What was he doing in the back of that van?” Shane wondered.

The work of MotoTintype team Susan McLaughlin and Paul d’Orléans inspired Shane’s deep research into the archaic photographic medium: this dual self-portrait was taken in Dodge City, Kansas, at the site of the old Dodge City board track, where this 1915 Harley-Davidson (owned by Bill Rodencal, archivist at the Harley-Davidson Museum) won an important 200-mile race in 1915. [MotoTintype]
He sent a note to Paul, who was happy to answer Shane’s questions about wet plate photography, a rather involved process of capturing a picture by exposing light on a piece of plate glass specially prepared with chemicals and liquid silver. “Paul told me about wet plate photography, and I got started by getting John Coffer’s book, The Doer’s Guide to Wet-Plate Photography,” Shane explains to me during a telephone interview. “I sat on the couch, got out my highlighter, and started learning all I could about the process.”

What the photographer sees: an inverted, backwards image on a ground glass focusing plate. This is Britney Olsen with her racing Harley-Davidson. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Forty-five days later, on October 4, 2012, armed with a great deal of enthusiasm, a large-format field camera he ordered from the Star Camera Company and two lights, Shane set up in the back corner of a warehouse. Used for the family business, Balkowitsch Enterprises, the warehouse is where Shane created a rudimentary studio/darkroom. His brother sat for that first image. And Shane has never looked back. “I wasn’t calling myself a photographer,” Shane says, and adds, “I didn’t want to insult anyone. But without having any previous camera experience or other photographic knowledge, I was under no constraints. I was just focused on getting an image, and I didn’t even realize I was using light to take these portraits. ‘Oh’, I said to myself, ‘I can move these fixtures and change the result or alter the mood of the image.’”

The finished result: a unique portrait from a highly technical, hand-made photo process long thought ‘obsolete’ as commercial considerations overtook the inherent qualities of the medium. Just like old motorcycles, wet plate photos take skill to make work, but have unique rewards. This photo of Brittney Oslen is spectacular! [Shane Balkowitsch]
Many of his first portraits were of family members; his brother, his wife Bonnie, his mom, his children. From the very first plate, Shane began numbering the images, and he began posting some of his results online. Word of his work spread, and soon others were inquiring about sitting for a wet plate photograph. While not short of volunteers, Shane also looks for interesting people to photograph, and in 2015 that’s how Brittney Olsen of 20th Century Racing found herself posing for a portrait with her 1923 F-head Harley-Davidson flat track racer.

Another portrait from the Britney Olsen photo session in 2015. Her JDH racer was built at home with her husband, restoration specialist Matt Olson. [Shane Balkowitsch]
“I found out about Brittney through the motorcycle community, and when I realized she lived relatively nearby in South Dakota I invited her in to pose,” Shane says. “The day she came into the warehouse with her bike, I set it all up but didn’t have enough lights to illuminate both her and the motorcycle. It was raining outside, but I came up with the idea to open the warehouse overhead door and have Brittney and the bike just under the awning. We got some images, and those images are a marriage between natural light and studio light – that experience led me to the realization that a motorcycle was too big a prop for me to illuminate with the studio lights I had at the time.”

A remarkable portrait of World Champion prizefighter Evander Holyfield, now part of the Smithsonian Museum Collection. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Chalking that up as a learning experience, Shane carried on honing his craft through 2015 in the warehouse studio/darkroom, including working with champion pugilist Evander Holyfield.  “He must have thought I was nuts,” Shane recalls. “Because I had no dividing wall between the studio and the darkroom, here he’s sitting in this dark warehouse while I capture his image on a plate, and then with red lights on while I’m loading the plate and then developing it.” But that plate caught the attention of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Shane offered the image as a gift to the NPG, and it was after that the North Dakota Historical Society told him they’d take every plate he created. “Prior to that, the Historical Society had an approval process, and they’d take one or another of my images that I offered, only taking what they wanted,” Shane says. “After the Smithsonian took the Evander Holyfield image, the Historical Society called and said ‘Anything you want to give us, we’ll take’”

Shane’s natural light photography studio, which he reckons might be the first built in generations using natural glass for full UV penetration. [Tom Wirtz]
While Brittney and Evander were important sitters in Shane’s first makeshift studio — in fact, every person who has sat for Shane has, as he says himself, entered his studio as strangers, but left as friends — his life’s work in the wet plate medium truly began when he photographed Sitting Bull’s Great Grandson, Ernie LaPointe, on September 6, 2014. Less than two years after learning the intricate art of wet plate photography, Shane took the image titled “Eternal Field”. It’s a significant plate, because on July 31, 1881 wet plate pioneer Orlando Scott Goff took an image of Sitting Bull in Bismarck, North Dakota. Some 133 years later, in the same state, Shane made an image of Sitting Bull’s Great Grandson, and this experience opened a door no one was expecting to open. Shane, after taking Ernie’s image and following up with subsequent portraits, from youngsters to elders belonging to many Native American tribes, began a series now referred to as Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective.

The first step on a new path in life: this photo of Ernie LaPointe was Shane’s first of a Native American, and has led to a remarkable relationship with Midwestern tribes, whom Shane is continuing to document in his series ‘Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective’. [Shane Balkowitsch]
“This is the most important wet plate made for this series, in fact it represents the first steps taken on this journey,” Shane notes in the Acknowledgements printed in the back of his outstanding book, Northern Plains Native Americans.  “Ernie was the first Native American to trust and believe in my camera.” The book, the first of four volumes that will comprise the entire series, contains more than 50 wet plate images of Native Americans, all taken by Shane. Ultimately, he plans to photograph 1,000 Native Americans for the series, creating a contemporary record using an antiquated process.

Frank Albert ‘White Bull’ with his customized Indian motorcycle, part of Shane’s ‘Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective’. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Four years after taking up wet plate photography, Shane found he was somewhat limited by what he could do in the warehouse. He doesn’t have any misgivings about working in the space; in fact, some of his favorite images were made in the warehouse. And, he adds, good results can be obtained in a rather simple environment. However, to further grow in his wet plate hobby, Shane sketched out on the back of a napkin a natural light studio featuring a large area of north-facing glass, in both the wall and the ceiling. Regular glass has UV coatings, and research showed panes of glass used in agricultural greenhouses were required. According to Shane, it’s the first natural glass wet plate studio built in the U.S. in over 100 years.

A panorama of the interior of Shane’s natural light studio in North Dakota. [Tom Wirtz]
Located on his family’s property, Shane only works in the studio on Friday. From Monday to Thursday, Shane steers Balkowitsch Enterprises, but spends much of his time considering and mentally preparing for his Friday studio time. “Every day is a creative day for me,” Shane explains, and continues, “but it’s so nice to consider one day a week as a chance to play; we need those safe havens where we can toss aside what we do as adults and just play, and I do consider this playing.” When the studio is not in use on Shane’s Friday, with a remarkable generosity of artistic spirit, he leaves the door open for other creative individuals to use the space. Painters, musicians and photographers have all availed themselves of the opportunity. And, Shane says, “At no time have I ever been let down by anyone else using the space.”

Shane’s most famous image, of climate activist Greta Thunberg, during a brief window he arranged for the photo process during her tour of the Native American resistance camp against the now-blocked Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).  Shane was granted 10 minutes to take the photo, but Greta was so charmed by the process, she posed for this, second photo, which is now in the collection of the Library of Congress. [Shane Balkowitsch]
Shane most recently gained a degree of notoriety after he took two wet plate images of internationally known climate activist Greta Thunberg. In October 2019, Shane met with Greta at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas. He donated one of the images, called “Standing For Us All”, to the Library of Congress. Working with a Bismarck building owner and local bakery, Shane proposed to install a 7-foot-tall mural of the image on the exterior wall of the downtown business. Shane planned to cover all costs. However, as soon as the proposal was made public, threats were made to either boycott the business, or deface the mural once it was up. Cancel that idea. He didn’t want to put a family-operated business in jeopardy over his artwork. Shane has two other murals in downtown Bismarck, and one of these was egged in response to his photographing Greta. The controversy was, he says, one of the most painful things he’s gone through.

A gorgeous glass plate of Ira High Elk ‘Scares the Eagle’, a member of the MHA Nation / Lakota tribe, from Shane’s series ‘Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective. [Shane Balkowitsch]
But he didn’t let it weigh him down. Instead, he focuses on creating more work, and teaching neophyte wet plate photographers the intricate process. One of his students was Josh Withers. Yes, the Josh Withers who built Shane’s 1971 BMW motorcycle. In a note to me about his friendship with Shane, Josh adds, “Shane is a generous, sincere, soulful and intrepid person. With zero photography experience he decided to fearlessly embark on one of the most difficult, and oldest photographic processes known to the medium. Then, years later and with my career as a photographer, I found myself in North Dakota learning from him. His passion towards his process is truly infectious. He quickly became a master of his craft and an inspiration to others. Now, every time I shoot with collodion, I use the same techniques and even the same phrases he uses.” Reflecting on the creative path he’s traveled, and continues to move along, Shane says, “Josh is such an accomplished modern-day photographer, and I’m so proud that I was able to teach him wet plate photography. If you’d said to us when we’d first met, ‘Josh, one day Shane is going to teach you wet plate photography’, we’d have just laughed.”

The finished 1971 BMW R75/5 ‘toaster tank’ custom built with Josh Withers. [Shane Balkowitsch]
What of that gateway vehicle, the 1971 BMW café racer, that helped Shane stumble upon the wet plate photography process? After completing the collaborative build, Shane learned to ride and kept the R75 a few years before finding his time occupied pursuing wet plate photography. The machine was sold, but when Shane isn’t behind the lens of his camera, he remains mechanically dedicated to maintaining and driving his ’65 Porsche 356.

You can follow Shane’s work on Instagram and Facebook: there’s also a documentary on his wet plate work –  ‘Balkowitsch’ – and you can watch the trailer here.

 

Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics
Related Posts

The Vintagent Original: Silver Shotgun

Italian motorcycle design of the 1960's...

El Mirage by Wet Plate

Photographing the speed trials at El...

Book Review: Charles Burki

Charles Burki illustrated his Norton...


Subscribe to Our Weekly Newsletter