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Reframing history: ND photographer's American Indian portrait series coming to Rourke

Jason Luke Morsette. Photo by Shane Balkowitsch / Special to The Forum1 / 6
Vonica Wicahpi Alberts. Photo by Shane Balkowitsch / Special to The Forum2 / 6
Margaret Landin, Honoring Sky Woman. Photo by Shane Balkowitsch / Special to The Forum3 / 6
Floris White Bull. Photo by Shane Balkowitsch / Special to The Forum4 / 6
Ernie La Pointe. Photo by Shane Balkowitsch / Special to The Forum5 / 6
Shane Balkowitsch wearing his signature T-shirt and bowler hat in his Bismarck studio. Photo by Anton Orlov / Special to The Forum6 / 6

BISMARCK — When Shane Balkowitsch focuses his camera on a subject, he has one eye on the past and one eye on the future.

Over the past few years, the Bismarck photographer has immersed himself in a 160-year-old process to capture portraits of today's American Indians — in contemporary and traditional garb — preserving history for generations to come.

A selection of his work opens Saturday, Aug. 25, at the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum in Moorhead. "Northern Plains Native Americans: A Personal Collection" consists of seconds and outtakes from sessions he's had with American Indians.

The main images from those sittings have been given to the Historical Society of North Dakota at the Heritage Center in Bismarck as part of a project that Balkowitsch hopes will include 1,000 images within 15 years.

"They are absolutely stunning," says Lindsay Schott, electronic records archivist at the Heritage Center. "We think it's great. We really appreciate that he's actively capturing people of North Dakota and the Upper Great Plains. We think it's very important to capture them now rather than waiting for them to be gone."

History lesson

It's not just that he's documenting a piece of American life that's turning heads, but also that he's using yesterday's techniques.

Balkowitsch hasn't always been a photographer. In fact, he takes some joy in explaining that he didn't even own a camera until 2012.

That is, until he was drawn to wet plate photography, in which an image is recorded on glass instead of film. The process was started around 1850 and utilizes a glass plate coated with a collodion, a sensitive, syrupy solution, then exposed inside the camera and developed, all within about 20 minutes.

The result of the longer exposure creates a clear image with high resolution and no grain or pixels.

"The silver and other molecules arrange themselves at the near-atomic level. Pictures don't get much crisper than that," says Jonathan Rutter, executive director and curator at the Rourke.

Balkowitsch's discovery of the process turned him into not just a wet plate enthusiast, but a passionate advocate for the technique.

"If you look at this romantically and that's the only way I look at this process, I'm not taking a photograph, I'm taking a movie, a 10-second movie," he says. "Your heart will beat three times. You're going to take a couple of shallow breaths. The blood is coursing through your body. All of that is captured in that image."

Look at the past

Balkowitsch follows in the steps of another Bismarck photographer, Orlando Scott Goff, who became the resident cameraman at Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1875.

Goff found a willing model in Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and took the last picture of him before he died in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

"Custer was a rather photographic whore, one of the most-photographed men of the 19th century," Balkowitsch says. "He liked pictures of himself."

Goff had another famous subject and in 1881, he became the first to take a picture of Sitting Bull in his Bismarck studio.

That historical note prompted Balkowitsch to reach out to Sitting Bull's great grandson, Ernie LaPointe, and offer to take his picture in the style of his iconic ancestor.

That image became the first in the photographer's series of Native Americans, and he has since made 220 images in that project.

Fixing history

Looking at Balkowitsch's photos recalls the work of Edward S. Curtis, who traveled the American West in the early 1900s creating photos in a series called "The North American Indian."

Balkowitsch is, of course, familiar with the project and says any comparison of his works to Curtis' is flattering, although he knows he has a long way to go to reach Curtis' level of artistry.

He also knows comparisons to Curtis come with a sticky flip side. In today's light, the iconic photographer has been criticized for over-romanticizing his subjects. He posed and dressed them up to make them look like what he thought Indians looked like, even if it meant they wore something not from their tribe.

"I fixed that," Balkowitsch says, when Curtis criticisms are brought up in light of his own work. "My Caucasian friends think I'm playing dress-up. I never introduce any item into my pictures of my Native American friends. They either bring it or it's not photographed. ... Regalia is not required for my series."

"If Shane was trying to profit off of these images, it would more likely smack of cultural appropriation," Rutter says. "But this is purely something he's doing to help document the first people of this continent."

Balkowitsch doesn't profit off his American Indian photography. The subjects aren't charged to have their picture taken — in fact, they are given a print as thanks. If he does sell a print from his personal collection, he makes a sizable donation to the American Indian College Fund.

"This Native American series is the most important work I could ever do," he says.

If you go

What: Shane Balkowitsch reception and demonstration

When: 6-8:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25

Where: Rourke Art Gallery + Museum, 521 Main Ave., Moorhead

Info: The event begins with Balkowitsch showing his process by taking photos of guests. The event is free and open to the public; www.therourke.org or 218-236-8861.

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