North Dakota artists use early form of photography to capture quarantine project

Known for her ornate vintage hat business called High Hat Couture, Kary Janousek took on wet plate photography after being introduced to it by Shane Balkowitsch in Bismarck. Nostalgic Glass / Special to the Forum
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FARGO — An old lock, a bronze cup, a bottle of silver nitrate and a strange wooden object from an abandoned farmhouse.

A group of the state’s only practicing wet plate photographers mailed these objects to each other as part of a quarantine art collaboration. As random as they may seem, each keepsake adds a voice to the story of the historic collodion process, a method of capturing photographs invented by Englishman Frederick Scott Archer in the mid-1800s.

While the end result may endure for millennia on glass, the creators of these precise artifacts have only so long to touch the promise of a distant reality.

“The Mad Hatter of Wet Plate” by Kary Janousek. High Hat Portraiture / Special to The Forum


That’s why Kary Janousek of High Hat Portraiture decided to make use of her spare creative time by devising a photo exchange.

“I knew everyone was kind of bored with their wet plate work because our studios are closed to visiting sitters right now,” Janousek says. “I thought it'd be fun for me, as the most inexperienced wet plate photographer, to send the most experienced artist in the state, Kevin Klein in Valley City, his prop. So, he agreed to do it and I sent him an antique padlock and key from the 1800s.”

The resulting photograph, entitled “Padlock with Hollyhocks,” captures the artist's perspectives from a vintage point of view. The lighting produces a quality just so; it’s softer than sepia, setting sail in a landslide of shadows, letting dreams become monuments crafted from silver and light.

"Padlock with Hollyhocks" was the first image captured for this exchange. It was created by Kevin Klein of Valley City. Photo courtesy of Kevin Klein / Special to the Forum

But to achieve this requires a complex process. Experimenting with this type of photography requires artists who are part perfectionist and part natural light mad scientist.

“For example, with these pieces I made, I had to learn how to hand-cut the glass to the size of the plate holder that goes into the camera, and then you have to clean it a special way,” Janousek explains about the process.

Next up on the list to receive a prop in the mail was Nostalgic Glass photographer Shane Balkowitsch, whose controversial photograph of Greta Thunberg was recently installed in downtown Fargo . He received an antique glass medicine bottle labeled silver nitrate from Klein.


Adding some grit to the photograph entitled “The 9.5 Fingered Ambrotypist,” he covered his hand in the chemical compound and let the light turn his skin black.

“I’ve always thought it was cool when magicians show you the trick,” says Balkowitsch, a Bismarck-based wet plate artist who first introduced Janousek to the technique. “I’m showing how this looks in real life but look how it looks through this process.”

The exchange, now two layers deep, takes on symbols of camaraderie. Balkowitsch worked with his daughter Abby to create the image, referencing ties to the old art form.

“If I can provide an artist with something from my studio, I’m kind of with them when they create,” Balkowitsch says. “So I’ve had other wet plate artist friends who have needed a bottle of silver, or this or that, or some ingredient and I would try to come to their aid and overnight it.”

"The 9.5 Fingered Ambrotypist" is a collaboration between Shane and Abby Balkowitsch featuring a silver nitrate bottle, the chemical compound used to expose images in wet plate photography. Nostalgic Glass / Special to the Forum

Next, Minot State University professor Ryan Stander joined the project. His untitled work is a fine blending of old and new, using his iPhone 11 to capture the images, cut them together and enlarge the negative onto a wet plate for exposure.


“So it's a crossing over, blending these different photographic worlds,” Stander says. “To me that's really kind of exciting, blending the technology of the iPhone with the history of photography. Anytime I'm struggling with content, if I flip my focus over to the process, learning something new, the work comes, I just have to learn the language of the process.”

“Untitled” is by Ryan Stander, a photographer and printmaker based in Minot, N.D. His object in the exchange is a small dish that he adorned with on onion and paired with a self-portrait. Ryan Stander / Special to the Forum

The final stop of the exchange is back to Janousek’s studio in Fargo, where she received a strange wooden toy Stander discovered in an abandoned house set to be demolished.

With the project at a fittingly symbolic endpoint, the promise of an ongoing collaboration is sure to turn some heads.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit

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