Documenting ND pipeline protests with 'time-machine' tech
FARGO—An unusual scene played out earlier this week at the site of the ongoing protest of an oil pipeline under construction near the Standing Rock Reservation in south central North Dakota.
As law enforcement officers looked on Monday, Aug. 15, a man stooped beneath a black cloak in the late summer heat, operating a wood camera like what was used in the mid- to late-1800s.
Shane Balkowitsch, 47, of Bismarck is using a vintage photo technology known as "wet plate collodion" to capture images of people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, part of which is being built adjacent to the reservation.
Balkowitsch, who had no previous background or interest in photography, taught himself the process in 2012 and began photographing Native Americans, many from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He befriended a number of them in the process.
Balkowitsch said his aim Monday was to move about the protest site as a photojournalist would, not manipulating any settings or situations. But he admits to having a motive-- a hope that his photos will add weight to the protest movement.
"I'm against fracking, against oil," Balkowitsch said. "And with my friends standing down there in the heat, I could not sit here at my desk."
The main concern of the protesters is their water supply. A section of the pipeline will be bored under the Missouri River and run less than a mile from the tribe's reservation boundary.
Dakota Goodhouse grew up on Standing Rock, teaches Native American history at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck and is a graduate history student at North Dakota State University. He recently joined protesters at the pipeline site, 45 miles south of Bismarck-Mandan and a mile north of the reservation.
"For me, I don't live there anymore, but have friends and relatives who will be impacted when the pipeline breaks," Goodhouse said.
He's one of those who struck up a friendship with Balkowitsch and is grateful his friend is sharing the unique protest photos.
"He's using this artistic process to bring light to a different, perhaps bigger audience than would be exposed otherwise," Goodhouse said.
Nurse turned photo buff
Balkowitsch is a registered nurse by trade who worked in a hospital oncology unit up until 18 years ago, when he started an online company selling health and household products.
Then about four years ago, he came across a photo online that he was drawn to immediately. After some investigation, he learned it was created by the wet plate process, and he immersed himself in learning it and buying the old camera boxes, lens and chemicals needed. After he made his first photograph, he was hooked.
"I knew that I had something, that I found this voice," Balkowitsch said.
Now, he uses his online sales business to help fund this passion, an expensive one at about $25 per photo exposure, he said.
A wet plate photographer makes a film base on glass using a solution called collodion, submerges it in silver nitrate to make it light sensitive and exposes the photograph in an old style wood bellows camera box and antique brass lens. The process is called wet plate because the chemicals used must remain wet through the process, or the image is lost. At the pipeline protest site, Balkowitsch had to keep the chemicals on ice due to the heat.
Because of the many steps, It takes him about a half hour to make each picture. He said normal exposure for a photograph is one-sixth of a second. With the wet plate process, he's doing a 3-second exposure in the field, and in his Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate studio, he uses a 10-second exposure for portraits.
"I take the lens cap off and put it back on," Balkowitsch said. "There's no shutter."
The longer exposure time means any movement made by the subjects is captured in the photo-- creating natural aberrations, smudges and smears, which add to the photo's appeal, he said.
The result is an imperfect but high-resolution photo, he said, in which you can't spot a pixel or a grain, even with a microscope.
"These are the most high-resolution images man has ever made, using 165-year-old technology to do so," Balkowitsch said.
"And we've abandoned it for digital photography," he said, wistfully.
Dozens of Native Americans, including Ernie LaPointe, great grandson of Chief Sitting Bull, have been photographed by Balkowitsch using the wet plate process—the same method used to capture one of the very first images of Sitting Bull himself, in 1881 in Bismarck.
The photograph of LaPointe, titled "Eternal Field," kicked off a series for the State Historical Society of North Dakota, which has a number of his works archived.
Balkowitsch thinks the pipeline protests are an important piece of history to be documented. He has feelings for both sides, and counts some of the law enforcement officers patrolling the protest site as his friends.
His heart, though, is with the "non-oil" interests, helping his friends on the Sioux Nation.
"We're using my camera as a time machine," Balkowitsch said.
Before he stumbled upon wet plate photography, Balkowitsch describes himself as being "blind" or "looking at life with my head down."
He considers it a personal thing to share this art that's given him a new view of life.
"It's so beautiful, such an historic process," he said.