UPDATES: New BTS photographs and video showing part of the wet plate development process of “Standing For Us All” have been added. Minor grammatical errors corrected. Addition of Greta’s Lakota name in English and Lakota pronunciation. Updates on the copyright status of “Standing For Us All”, which is has been made available to the public under Creative Commons licencing.
The call came in on the afternoon of Monday 7th October. Shane Balkowitsch would have little under 24 hours to plan a 15-minute wet plate photo shoot with Greta Thunberg at Standing Rock. Naturally, the first thing he did after getting off the phone was to start packing his studio up into the back of his truck — including his portable darkroom.
It was going to be an intense 24 hours.
Rewind seven years to October 4th 2012. It was that day when, in his own words, Shane “first took a photograph with any intent”. It was a wet plate. He’d been inspired after seeing John Coffer’s work online and decided that if he was going to make photographs, this is how he would do it. He was 43.
Today in 2019, Shane has made over 3400, with nearly 600 in archives around the world, most being at the State Historical Society of North Dakota, The Heard Museum, Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum and the Smithsonian Institute.
It’s not that wet plate is one of the photographic forms he works in, it’s the only one he works in.
Shane’s development as a photographer has been fast, especially so given that the process he uses is slow even by traditional film photography standards. His “break” came just two and a half short years after making that first plate, in the form of a portrait session with Evander Holyfield. The plate now sits in the Smithsonian, gifted by Shane in memory of Frederick Scott Archer.
Over the past seven years, Shane has built deep relationships with the Native American communities of Dakota, especially at Standing Rock. During that time, he has been able to capture many community members and their families using his signature wet plate process, including Ernie LaPointe, Great Grandson of Sitting Bull and Deb Haaland who, with Sharice Davids were the first Native American women elected to Congress.
Much of Shane’s work has focused around the lives and rich histories of the Native American communities of North Dakota and Northern Plains. He recently published a book of collected photographs and stories titled, Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective.
The shoot was confirmed for 4pm the following day, Tuesday, October 8th. With an hour’s drive ahead of him, plus the outdoors location necessitating set-up in the field instead of his preferred natural daylight studio, Shane packed everything — including the kitchen sink — into his truck and left nearly four hours ahead of time.
“I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. I needed to get down there. I had to make sure everything was prepared beforehand, which is why I started packing immediately after I put the phone down.”
“We were on the road when I got another call. Greta and her father Svante would be at the reservation two hours earlier than planned. I had 75 minutes; an hour to get there and fifteen minutes to scout, get set-up and do a test plate… We made it there in time but I didn’t have time for the test. Greta had a 15-minute window to spend with me, so you can imagine I had a lot of butterflies going in. I had even packed my indoor lights in case the location changed.”
Shane prefers to work in the controlled environment of his studio in Bismark, North Dakota. Factors such as light, temperature and humidity are all better managed and can be tweaked as needed for the shoot. Making wet plates outdoors changes everything:
“You have to submit yourself to the situation, accept it and either make it part of the process or try your best to control it. Outdoors, I’m worried about the plates drying up, the effect of temperature, humidity, wind shaking the camera, everything…but when it comes down to it, you have to make it work.”
“I knew she didn’t have the time for more than one shot but I was aware of the effect the first plate would have. I really wanted to make two; a tight headshot of Greta first and wider, a full-torso shot second. I made the call to do the headshot first and when I showed it to Greta and Svante, they agreed I could have another fifteen minutes to make the second plate. It was a three-second exposure in 20 MPH film, so everything was moving but like I said, you have to make it work.”
“I chose the name ‘Standing For Us All’ for the second wet plate of Greta. I think it works. Before she left us, I asked her father Svante a question. I asked what it was I could do for her and her cause. He explained to me that I had already done my part by taking her wet plate. His only request was that the images be shared with the world along with Greta’s message.”
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”– GRETA THUNBERG
Shane goes on to tell me.
“I made the plates on a non-commercial basis – I won’t be selling them or making money directly from them. I hope to be able to send ‘Standing For Us All’ to The Smithsonian Institute to be preserved and kept for future generations.”
“The thing about meeting great people is that it’s not like they’re running around trying to make sure everyone knows they’re there and who they are. They have a presence, as does Greta. She’s just ‘there’. When she speaks, she’s articulate and knowledgeable. She’s not pretending to be a scientist but she IS telling us to listen to them, to those people who have spent their lives trying to understand what’s going on with our planet. You can’t argue with that.”
“Nothing like this just magically falls into place and I’m forever grateful to Jen Jewett for making this happen. I also need to thank Standing Rock for helping us capture this history on their lands. The behind the scenes photos you see here were taken by my friend Chad Nodland – he was there catching everything I wasn’t! I also need to thank my daughter Abby Ava Balkowitsch for being there for me. It was largely because of her that I was able to make and develop these two exposures in less than 30 minutes.”
Behind the scenes photographs from Chad Nodland:
“It all comes down to building relationships. Without them, I would never have been able to meet Greta or get to know the amazing people I’ve met over the last seven years.”
“The response to these photos since posting them on my personal social media earlier this week has been amazing, overwhelmingly positive but not without its downside. A few people seem offended that I would make these photos using a chemical process they believe is more damaging to the environment than digital options. To them I say this, these two plates used millilitres of chemistry. I recycle everything I can and dispose of the rest in a responsible manner. I’m not taking photos with a plastic camera using scarce rare-earth components. I’m using a wooden camera that will outlive me and creating photographs that will be seen for at least a generation after my children are gone from this planet. That’s my legacy: taking photos that will last for over 100 years. Something I believe to be special not just for me, but for those generations that will come after me.”
My thanks to Shane for taking the time out to speak to me about the shoot and providing his permission to share the outcome, the wonderful behind the scenes photos and details of our conversation here on EMULSIVE. Needless to say that in the time since he first posted these images on social media, life has been running at a very fast pace. Greta was officially given a Lakota name by tribal leaders at Standing Rock: “Woman Who Comes From The Heavens”. In the Lakota language, “Maphiyata Echiyatan Hin Win”. In addition, Shane has made “Standing For Us All” available on Wiki Commons. A high-resolution scan is now available to the public under a Creative Commons – Share Alike 4.0 International licence. His gift to her cause and legacy.
Regular readers will know I rarely if ever, get political on these pages but I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t say my piece.
On a personal level, I don’t believe there are “sides” of this debate to fall on. The science is extensive and proven, and the impact we are having on our planet undeniable. Regardless of where you personally land, we are faced with a fundamental truth: cleaning up after ourselves, not wasting resources and ensuring that we leave the planet a better place for our kids and their kids ad infinitum is a good thing.
This is at least, is not something we should be arguing about. Thanks for reading,