Dakota Goodhouse, or “Two Wars”, of the Hunkpapha Lakota Tribe describes the experience of having her photo taken by North Dakotan Shane Balkowitsch like this: “Gradually an image emerged. It was like watching the Northern Lights dance in the sky… like … someone emerge from a morning fog… like … smoke rise and dissipate in the sky. It was like watching the vapors of one’s breath on frosty glass. It was more than looking in the mirror and seeing a reflection. It was more than looking at a painting and recognizing one’s self. It was like a dream and that self-recognition woke something inside me. I could understand in that one moment what it must have been like for relatives to have had their portrait taken as a wet plate long ago.”
Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective presents a selection from Balkowitsch’s photographic project that aims to capture 1000 wet plate portraits of Native Americans. Following in the footsteps of Edward S. Curtis and Orlando Scott Goff, Balkowitsch pays homage to his home state and its Native American heritage and culture.
The photographs in the book highlight the dignity of his subjects, depicting them not as archetypes, but individuals of contemporary identities with historical legacies. In our image-saturated world informed by automation and digital speed, Northern Plains Native Americans offers a fresh perspective on the photographic imagination.
The book is an archive of 55 wet plate collodion images. It’s nostalgic in spirit, painterly in feel and impressive in scale.
For Balkowitsch the large format approach is not side project, while he plugs away with his DSLR. Since 2012 he’s devoted himself fully to this practice that dates back to nineteenth-century Victorian origins. Why you ask? According to him, “Each image contains not only the moment it was taken, but the time in which it was taken. People are willing to hold their breath, focus their eyes and still their thoughts for the 10 seconds necessary to make an exposure. Each exposure contains a piece of eternity. In essence, people willingly give me a little part of their lives to be photographed in collodion.”
In his introduction to the book, photographer Herbert Ascherman writes: “[Shane] understands that a photographic portrait is the photographer’s statement of fact. Shane the photographer and his Native American sitter have collaborated in the creation of a piece of contemporary history using classical methodology.” Evening Star Woman of the Sahnish, Hidatsa and Assiniboine Tribes goes on to say in the forward of he book: “This work belongs to the Northern Native American’s that represented their tribes across these states. These images show that we are a people that could not be erased from this earth. They are for our future generations to see we are still here, we are strong, we are humble, we are pitiful, we are honored, we are grateful, we are indigenous, we are unified.” In that sense this book, and the future portraits that will come from Balkowitsch’s project are a valuable archive to be treasured.
** On behalf of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Calvin Grinnell, called “Running Elk” of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation, bestowed upon Shane the honor of the Indian name “Maa’ishda tehxixi Agu’agshi” (Hidatsa), the “Shadow Catcher.”