The room is perfectly still for the big moment: the capturing of a meticulously composed image. That stillness—all ten seconds of it—is non-negotiable.
“Everything is difficult about this process, but to me that’s the point,” says Shane Balkowitsch. “What’s difficult is what makes it so wonderful.”
Balkowitsch is a wet plate photographer, or ambrotypist. It’s an esoteric art form from the 1800s that marries silver to glass, creating an image that’s crystal-clear. Shane describes it like this:
“If I put a molecule of silver on the tip of my finger and ask you to look at it, you can’t see it. Put a million molecules of silver on the tip of my finger, ask you to look at it, you can’t see it. So that’s what I’m writing in. Put it under the most high-resolution microscope you could find, and you can’t get to the pixel of grain.”
So why was ambrotype abandoned just a decade after it was invented? Well, for starters, it requires ten seconds of perfect stillness from the subject. “It’s not for the faint of heart,” Balkowitsch says.
It also requires precision, speed, bright light, and a lot of chemicals. It’s time consuming and labor intensive—a far cry from snapping a digital photo on your iPhone.
But Balkowitsch isn’t so sure that faster is better. “We are trusting technology with our memories,” he says. “This entire generation of people that’s trusting their iPhones and digital cameras is going to be lost on the world, because there’s no way these images are going to find their way into the future.”
And maybe—just maybe—he has a point. Because the final step—when all that hard work becomes tangible—can only be described as magical.
“The fact that I was able to pour these chemicals onto a piece of glass that I cut by hand, and his image appeared—it seemed like magic to me,” Balkowitsch says of his first wet plate. “I’ve made over 2,500 plates as of today, and that has not been lost on me at all.”
Shane Balkowitsch—using the past to capture the future—is someone you should know.
Balkowitsch recently completed a natural light studio for his wet plate photography — the first of its kind in North Dakota in over a century.
Click here to learn more about Shane Balkowitsch’s work.