BISMARCK — Shane Balkowitsch wants to capture 1,000 portraits of American Indians using a method dating back to the 19th Century, and he’s already a third of the way to his goal.
With 312 portraits completed using a method known as the “wet plate,” Balkowitsch is releasing his book “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective,” and hosting a book-signing event Sunday afternoon in Bismarck.
U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland (D-New Mexico), Sitting Bull’s great grandson Ernie LaPointe, North Dakota Rep. Ruth Buffalo (D-Fargo), and South Dakota Rep. Tamara St. John (R-Sisseton) will attend. The event will also include singing and dancing.
“I want this to be a cultural event,” Balkowitsch said, adding it’s his way of paying back the people who trusted him to take their portraits.
LaPointe was the first Native American Balkowitsch photographed, and his portrait is on the cover of the book. That picture is the favorite, Balkowitsch said, noting that 135 years earlier, photographer Orlando Goff captured Sitting Bull using the same wet plate method.
“It’s not just about the portrait. It’s the process that’s really special,” Balkowitsch said.
The process involves preparing a glass plate with collodion and silver nitrate solution for an extended exposure in the camera. It takes 10 seconds to capture the photo — that’s 600 times longer than an iPhone, according to a press release about the event.
In the foreword of the book, Dakota Goodhouse of the Hunkpapha Lakota Tribe said, "The moment may only have lasted for so little time, but it also mysteriously seemed to be the longest ten seconds of my life." As the image emerged in the moments after, Goodhouse said, "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."
Each image contains whatever regalia the person brought, Balkowitsch said, noting that he never added any props to the photos. And before taking a portrait, he would collaborate on what was important to the person.
"I really want to tell the story of Native Americans," he said. "That we have not wiped them out. They’re still here, and they have a very important culture. And we need to celebrate it."
Balkowitsch donates each portrait to the state's historical society. He said capturing 1,000 portraits will likely take 15 years, and he’s already five years in. But he doesn’t plan on stopping once he reaches his goal, and he hopes to publish another book in a few years. Last October, the Three Affiliated Tribes gave Balkowitsch a Hidatsa name of "Maa’ishda tehxixi Agu’agshi," or "Shadow Catcher."
The book event will be from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum at 612 Boulevard Ave. in Bismarck.
Readers can reach Native American issues reporter Natasha Rausch, a Report For America corps member, at 701-241-5528, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @n_rausch21.