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 Balkowitsch - Evander Holyfield
Shane Balkowitsch – Evander Holyfield

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.

When the call came confirming that he’d be able to meet and photograph Greta, he knew he had to be there and that he’d need to be quick. 15 minutes. He could do it in 15 minutes. For a famously methodical and labour intensive process, calling a 15-minute window to set-up, expose and develop a wet plate a challenge is a bit of an understatement.

“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.”

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.


“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.”

Wet plate #1: Greta Thunberg headshot
Wet plate #2: “Standing For Us All”

“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 eariler 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 CommonsShare 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,

~ EM

FAQs

Who is Greta Thunberg?

Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg? is a Swedish teenage environmental activist on climate change whose campaigning and “School strike for climate” has gained international recognition.

What is Greta Thunberg’s Lakota name?

Greta Thunberg was given the Lakota name “Woman Who Comes From The Heavens” by tribal leaders at Standing Rock, N. Dakota on October 9th 2019. In Lakota, this translated to “maphiyata echiyatan hin win”.

What is wet plate photography?

Wet plate collodion process was invented in 1851 and requires plates made from glass or aluminium to be coated, sensitized, exposed and developed within the span of ~15 minutes, necessitating the use of portable darkrooms when working in the field.

Who is Shane Balkowitsch?

Shane is an American wet plate photographer from Bismarck, North Dakota who works exclusively in the historic wet plate photographic process, first documented by British photographer Frederick Scott Archer in 1851.

31 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful article, wonderful photo work, wonderful child, Greta! I wish her to achieve what my generation didn’t… to have a clean planet, a garden, The Earth, where next generations will be able to live in peace and with the Nature. Thanks EM for this post! Thanks Greta, don’t give up the fight: many people are against you, but more and more are for you. You bright up hope to a lot of people.

    • RESPONSE TO HATERS of my work with Greta Thunberg!
      This past 24 hours has completely gone off the rails. My wet plates of Greta Thunberg have gone viral online. On Facebook alone there has been thousands of shares and tens of thousands of likes. I have a little glimpse into what this young girl needs to deal with each and every day. She has one message for us adults. Listen to the scientists and act upon that information, nothing more. The personal attacks I have seen against her is unforgiveable and frankly difficult to read at times. I have spent time with this strong young lady and her father. All of these attacks are misguided, senseless and very disturbing to say the least. These haters will most certainly be on the wrong side of history. This I am sure of. They will be relegated into the same group as the flat earth community or the people that believe we never went to the moon. This is what they deserve for their ignorance and stupidity.
      So now I must address the attacks that have received on my wet plate work. Understand, these attacks are mostly from my so called photography brothers and sisters. In many cases, these people are digital photographers.
      The reoccurring theme against these images is that the wet plate collodion process is hard on the environment and that I should have never captured her using the historic process for this reason. Someone even suggested that I should not be using silver and that Greta should not have that silver necklace because of the negative impact of collecting that metal has on the environment.
      My response to this is pretty straight forward. Digital cameras are made of plastics, circuit boards, micro-chips and worst of all batteries. My camera is made out of wood and metal and some cloth. The environmental footprint of a digital camera is way more detrimental than anything I do with my large format camera. Sure I must use collodion, developer and fixer to make my images, there simply is no other way. Let me remind you film photography uses very similar chemistry and film also contains the precious metal silver. While we are at it, we might as well slight painters for using their pigments and varnishes to make their work. Any idea how toxic turpentine is? Maybe we should be focusing on Picasso and his work?
      So what are we to do, not take the picture? Not capture her and pay respect to her movement? To that I say, NO!
      The worst part of these negative comments is that they are coming from fellow photographers, artists and friends. Many of which have no idea about the 165 year old process that I practice. Again, ignorance having a voice and rearing its ugly head.
      This post is about me standing up. Not only for Greta but for all the other people in the world that are trying to do something positive. I am telling you haters, be gone. Find someone else’s work to ridicule and put down. Even more importantly, how about let us see what work you have been bringing into the world. Show us how it is done. Show us the right way to do this. No you will not do that will you. You are too busy putting down or pissing on someone else to make your own work or your own difference.
      So if anyone has a problem with this post. I would suggest you unfriend me so I do not have to do it for you.
      In closing, I want to thank everyone for the thousands and thousands of wonderful and supportive comments about Greta and the message she is wielding. It was an honor to be able to capture her image for history and the cause that she leads. Remember as the name of the plate says “Standing For All Of Us”, even you haters.

      By Shane Balkowitsch

      • 100% behind you on this Shane. Ignore the negativity, they are merely holding up a mirror to their own weakness.

        No-one is perfect, we all use the earth’s resources. At least you’re making something significant with yours, images that have moved people and will continue to do so for many years.

      • Congratulations Shane. As The Phoblographer so aptly stated: “Shane has burst into the spotlight with a very special photograph of a hugely influential young woman [Greta Thunberg]. Ignore the haters.

    • My camera is made of wood, aluminum and cloth. Digital cameras are made out of plastic, circuit boards, micro chips and batteries. The gear needed to make digital photographs is far harder on the environment than anything us wet plate artists are doing and let us not forget you replace your digital camera every couple of years and the environmental impact of the modern camera is felt yet again.

  2. Those are outstading images, the full shot of Greta standing and looking to the distance is my favourite and both are going to be around long after we are gone.

  3. Thank you Shane for being a true warrior yourself and showing up prepared with the support of friends and daughter! As a photographer my heart was beating after the description of phone call, packing the truck,the drive, setting up and making not one but two blessed exposures!! The land, winds, sun and ancestors supported you for sure!!

  4. I’ve come across your work now and again on the web and published in articles. It’s beautiful and can be haunting at times. You combine art & craft and the result is unique.
    As for Greta…I like the standing portrait. I can see her Scandinavian ancestors standing on the North American Plains 150 years ago reflected in her face. Hardy, tough people. But I also see a curious, 16 year-old teenager entranced in your entire process. A wonderful set of back story photos. We forget she’s just a kid who has taken on a heavy load, but the snaps show her just relaxing and enjoying herself. All well done.

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