Shane Balkowitsch of North Dakota Makes Photography History with Wet Plates Collaboration
More than 100 collaborators gathered on Saturday July 17 at the Marian Grotto of the University of Mary in Bismarck to create what is probably the largest wet plate photographic collaboration in history. The final image, titled “No vaccine for death” was inspired by the painting “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1562. In Saturday’s version, more than 75 collaborators were in the picture, with dozens more helping behind the scenes.
Balkowitsch has already made a name for itself nationally and internationally with its images. He photographed boxer Evander Holyfield as well as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. A a documentary starring Balkowitsch has also been released on Amazon Prime.
He is currently engaged in a project that hopes to preserve 1,000 portraits of Native Americans of the Northern Plains using the process of wet plate photography, a highly specialized form of photography from the early days of the art. The collodion is poured onto a plate, submerged in a bath of silver nitrate, exposed in the camera, and then developed – all within 10 minutes before the chemicals dry. The process creates what is called an ambrotype. While some photographers using wet plates use clear glass plates, which allow multiple prints per contact, Balkowitsch uses black glass, which means each finished plate is unique and cannot be copied.
The collaborators of “No Vaccine for Death” by Shane Balkowitsch begin to pose on Saturday July 17 in Bismarck. Their poses are intended to imitate the “Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. W. Scott Olson / Forum Special
This project has already resulted in an acclaimed book, “Native Americans of the Northern Plains: A Modern Perspective of the Wet Plate”, and he’s off to a good start for a second.
“No Vaccine for Death” is Balkowitsch’s fifth large-scale collaboration. The first was “Murder’s Gulch” in 2016, based on a historical section of downtown Bismarck from the 1800s. Then came “The Capsizing of Mankind,” based on an 1818 painting by Theodore Gericault titled “The Raft of a jellyfish”. This was followed by “Liberty trails by injustice”, based on “Liberty leading the people”, the famous painting of the French Revolution by Eugène Delacroix. Fifty-three collaborators came together for this project. Then came “The Throne of the Gods”, inspired by the work “Olympians” by Nicolas-André Monsiau.
Why do a great collaboration on this? “To bring creative people together,” Balkowitsch said. “I had collaborated in my studio, and it seemed like it would be fun if I put the makeup, the hair, the costumes, the set design into something big.”
More than 100 people participated in “No vaccine against death”. Chief among them was Marek Dojs, associate professor of communication at the University of Mary, who has a background in cinema. With an Alessandro Gibellini large format 8×10 camera mounted in the back of a van, Balkowitsch and Dojs organized the collaborators to represent the painting, organizing them into sections.
Shane Balkowitsch created sections based on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Triumph of Death” to organize his wet plate photograph titled “No Vaccine for Death”. W. Scott Olson / Forum Special
“Two years ago it was going to be something completely different,” Balkowitsch said. “We had a painting of saints coming down from heaven and other people going up to heaven. It was a fight between the good and the bad idea. Then COVID hit, and we knew we had to do something about the pandemic. “
“We are not trying to imitate the painting exactly,” he continued. “Some people think every item has to be right, and that’s really not our intention at all.”
“One of the challenges,” Dojs noted, “is that we have a lot more people in the frame. This image draws attention to many different places.
Shane Balkowitsch, seen in the foreground, Marek Dojs are seen on Saturday July 17th in Bismarck filming “No Vaccine for Death”. W. Scott Olson / Forum Special
“We just want to pay tribute to the original image,” Balkowitsch said.
On the hillside overlooking the Missouri River, the collaborators are set up. Balkowitsch made three test plates, adjusted people and accessories after each. “I only need one usable plate,” he says. “If I get a plate that represents what I’m trying to accomplish, it doesn’t matter what else happens that day.”
Collaborators of “No Vaccine for Death” by Shane Balkowitsch watch the photograph of the wet plate develop on Saturday July 17 in Bismarck. W. Scott Olson / Forum Special
The fourth plate was perfect. And while there are images of wet patches with more people in them – crowd photos and the like – “No Vaccine for Death” appears to be the biggest collaborative fine art project in history.
The final plaque will be part of the permanent holdings of the North Dakota Historical Society.
The last wet plate photograph of “No Vaccine for Death” by Shane Balkowitsch is seen in development on Saturday July 17th at Bismarck. W. Scott Olson / Forum Special