Photography is categorized by some as art and others as science, mostly depending on the approach and the subject. Others look at it completely from a journalistic perspective, to tell a story.
Shane Balkowitsch’s photos, or plates, can’t be accurately called art or science, they must be called magic.
It sounds cliche and crazy, but 30 people from the Bismarck State College Graphic Design and Communications Department witnessed it, a few even saw it twice and were still amazed.
Balkowitsch wouldn’t categorize his work as magical, and he certainly doesn’t consider himself a photographer — that’s one of the first things he will tell you. He wears a bowler hat because it fits the era of his photographic process, a process called wet-plate photography.
In a time when shooting film seems old-school, Balkowitch’s wet-plate process is downright prehistoric. It was created around 1849 and used through the Civil War era until gelatin photos became common in the 1880s.
Wet-plate photography is hard. It’s expensive. It’s time consuming. And an even bigger challenge beyond any of that is that there isn’t anyone in the entire state who can help you if you have a problem. Balkowitsch skirted that issue by reading up on it, then going for it. No matter that most folks who try the process in the modern era are photographers with 30 years of experience and Balkowitsch hadn’t owned even a point-and-shoot camera before. His license plate frame could say, “My other camera is a wet-plate camera, too,” because he has two, although he does now occasionally use his iPhone to document his wet-plate photography.
The magic occurs when the model is situated and Balkowitsch prepares the plate to go into the camera. He coats the plate with collodion, gives it a dip in silver nitrate and then it’s ready to go into a camera. That’s the simplified version — there’s a lot of preparation that happens beforehand, as well as hours of trial and error, that makes the results look magical, not scientific.
After the plate is in the camera, the lens cap is removed and a count started. With the studio lights on, the cap is off for eight seconds and then put back on to block light from the plate. All lights are shut off except the red safe lights, and then the developing process starts. The plate goes through a developer where the image appears, into a wash, then a fix. The fix should include “alakazam” because the image disappears, then reappears mysteriously.
All of this is incredible, and then you consider that the entire process has to occur, from beginning to end, while the plate remains wet and you are awed.
Thank you, very much, to Shane Balkowitsch for sharing his time and his knowledge, not to mention his generosity with his materials.
Check out more of Balkowitsch’s work at his website: http://sharoncol.balkowitsch.com/wetplate.htm