Shadow Catcher captures 'eight unblinking seconds' in portraits

Calvin Benjamin Grinnell, Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, posed for Balkowitsch in 2017. He gave Balkowitsch his Native American name, "Shadow Catcher" in 2018 in a naming ceremony. The name is significant because it previously belonged to ethnographer and wet plate photographer Edward S. Curtis in the early 20th century. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)

Olivia Riggio

Shane Balkowitch, who made headlines for his image of climate activist Greta Thunberg, aims to photograph 1,000 Native people using 150-year-old method called wet plate collodion

Olivia Riggio

Special to Indian Country Today

Historian Dakota Goodhouse is photographed sitting. His head encircled by a buffalo hide that wraps around his shoulders. His piercing stare is grippingly illuminated while the background of the portrait is defined by shadow.

The black and white image of Goodhouse, Hunkpapha Lakota, looks like a photo by 19th century ethnologist Edward Curtis. But it was taken four years ago by photographer Shane Balkowitsch who is based in North Dakota.

Balkowitsch, who owns Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio in Bismarck, uses an antique method of photography called wet plate collodion.

The tedious art form involves making a film base on a piece of glass or metal using a chemical called collodion. The photographer submerges the plate in a silver nitrate solution to make it light sensitive and exposes the plate to the photo subject using an old-style wooden camera box. The photographer then pours a developing solution onto the plate and the image appears. The subject must stay completely still for 10 seconds. The photographer must work quickly to ensure the plate stays wet during the entire process.

There are possibly less than 1,000 photographers who still practice this type of photography today. The method is powerful because of the clarity and longevity of the photos. The photos can remain in perfect condition for hundreds of years.

Balkowitsch has made it his life’s work to photograph 1,000 Native people over the next two decades. He is publishing his work in books and his photos are being archived in the State Historical Society of North Dakota forever.

“The only way I could think of it was old time photograph, black powder, poof!” Goodhouse said. “And that’s not what it was at all.”

Goodhouse described the process as intricate and even reverent as Balkowitsch sat him down, helped him pose and explained how he was going to take the photograph.

“He was explaining about the photons leaving the sun, spent millions of years escaping from the center of the sun to make it to the surface and then spent eight minutes to get here,” Goodhouse said. “And then, spending eight seconds of my life with him while he’s on this camera … Eight unblinking seconds. When he started to explain things like that it just really felt that this was more than just the scientific process.”

He even described Balkowitsch handling the plate with “the reverence of a priest bringing the sacred gifts to the altar and presenting them to the congregation.”

Goodhouse is the second person Balkowitsch took a wet plate of. The first was Ernie LaPointe, Lakota, the great grandson of Sitting Bull who was photographed in the same way generations earlier by Orlando Scott Goff. Balkowitsch called LaPointe, asking him if he’d like to sit for the photo, and they have been friends since.

Historian Dakota Goodhouse, Hunkpapha Lakota. (Photo by Shane Balkowitch)
Historian Dakota Goodhouse, Hunkpapha Lakota. (Photo by Shane Balkowitch)
Balkowitsch's series began with he photographed Ernie LaPointe, Lakota, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull. Photographer Orlando Scott Goff captured his great-grandfather generations before using the same method. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Balkowitsch's series began with he photographed Ernie LaPointe, Lakota, the great-grandson of Sitting Bull. Photographer Orlando Scott Goff captured his great-grandfather generations before using the same method. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)

Prior to this project, Balkowitsch, like many wet plate photographers, mainly took civil war reenactment photos. After taking the photo of LaPointe, he never went back to capturing reenactments.

“I’ve never done another reenactment since because it occurred to me that we make history today,” Balkowitsch said referring to the photographs he captures. “Two-hundred years from now that’s going to be as important as the Sitting Bull photograph that Goff took.”

Balkowitsch’s photography has already reflected historical moments.

He protested alongside the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies during the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrations where he met many of the people he later captured wet plates of. He photographed Scott Davis, Standing Rock Sioux, executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, and Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo.

Most recently, the photographer made headlines when his portrait of Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg visited the Standing Rock Reservation. It was archived in the Library of Congress. He credits the opportunity to his friends at Standing Rock and the relationship he’s built with them.

Balkowitsch, who is white, said he began the project barely knowing any Native people. Years later, he’s photographed hundreds. Many of them coming to him solely through word of mouth. The process of taking and developing the photographs takes almost a whole day. Balkowitsch and his subjects get to know one another in that time. He asks them about the significance of the objects they choose to bring with them for the photo, and learns about their cultures.

“It’s about a collaboration. So, it’s no wonder when people leave my studio … they share the story of the experience with me, and that brings other people in,” Balkowitsch said.

Balkowitsch took a wet plate of New Mexico Rep. Debra Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, in 2019. This image appeared on the cover of High Plains Reader magazine's June 27, 2019 issue. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Balkowitsch took a wet plate of New Mexico Rep. Debra Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, in 2019. This image appeared on the cover of High Plains Reader magazine's June 27, 2019 issue. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg visited the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota during her trip to America. Because of his relationship with the people of that reservation, Balkowitsch was able to have a few moments with Thunberg to capture this image. It is now archived in the Library of Congress. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg visited the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota during her trip to America.  It is archived in the Library of Congress. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)

For his photo, Goodhouse chose to bring a buffalo hide that was decorated with pictographs that represented the years of the Sitting Bull Sun Dance. The pictographs on the hide, though important to Goodhouse, ultimately did not end up in the image due to how Balkowitsch posed Goodhouse, but now, Balkowitsch allows his subjects to completely dictate every aspect of the photo. Some subjects choose to wear traditional outfits, regalia or showcase objects important to them. Others opt for modern clothes like scrubs, cowboy hats, jeans and even sports uniforms.

Margaret Landin, Arikara Hidatsa and Assiniboine, met Balkowitsch when she went with her uncle for his photo shoot. She later posed for her own photo. Fascinated by the process — and the fact that many people who entered Balkowitsch’s studio were people she knew — Landin soon began volunteering to help Balkowitsch. She serves as a liaison between him and the Native community.

“A lot of the time when people come in I ask them, ‘What do you want portrayed in your photo?’ And they might tell me what’s significant to them,” Landin said. “Something that’s important that they brought to share in the photo that may be something like an old medicine bag, an old pottery dish.”

Landin has taken a few photos with Balkowitsch, but in her favorite, she is wearing a beaded cape one her mother made for her.

“I wanted that to be archived forever and ever because that meant so much to me. And our regalia and our beadwork, a lot of it tells a story,” she said.

Sometimes, Balkowitsch is met with apprehension when he asks people to pose for him. Goodhouse was one who was unsure at first, but who was nonetheless interested.

“I could, for a moment … put myself in the shoes — the moccasins — of my relatives who took these pictures, how it must’ve felt and maybe even the apprehension they felt at getting their image taken,” Goodhouse said.

In the Lakota language, the word for spirit, reflection and shadow — nağí — is the same, inherently linking these concepts together.

“The part of my mind that has been Westernized to think and understand in a certain way, a Western way, says, ‘This is just a picture,’” Goodhouse said. “But, this part of me that grew up on Standing Rock, this part of me that grew up with my grandparents with some traditional understanding, really felt like what this guy was doing was almost spiritual.”

Balkowitsch has captured the images of a handful of community activists, including Scott Davis, Standing Rock Sioux, Executive Director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Balkowitsch has captured the images of a handful of community activists, including Scott Davis, Standing Rock Sioux, Executive Director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Margaret Landin, Arikara Hidatsa Assiniboine, collaborates with Balkowitsch as his liaison. In this photo, she is wearing a beaded cape she was gifted. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Margaret Landin, Arikara Hidatsa Assiniboine, collaborates with Balkowitsch as his liaison. In this photo, she is wearing a beaded cape she was gifted. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)

Landin said when people express apprehension toward taking part in the project, Balkowitsch invites them to come to his studio and see what his work is about. They sometimes leave moved to tears by the experience. The part of the process where Balkowitsch pours the developer onto the plate is often unlike anything most people have seen before. Goodhouse described it as similar to watching the Northern Lights dancing silently across the sky.

“When’s the last time you witnessed someone looking at a picture and they were crying? There’s something significant about this and it’s lost in modern day photography,” Balkowitsch said.

In the age of Instagram, the entire process of taking and sharing a photo can take mere seconds. Wet plate photography takes up an entire afternoon. Through this project, Balkowitsch has made many friends — and even received a Native American name, “Shadow Catcher.” Calvin Grinnell, a historian for the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, gave Balkowitsch the name after taking part in his project. “Shadow Catcher” is significant because it was the same name Edward S. Curtis was given in honor of his photographic projects documenting tribes in the early 20th century. Before meeting Balkowitch, Grinnell had studied Curtis’ work in the book, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis” by Timothy Egan.

“From what I could gather from reading the book, this man was dedicated, Edward Curtis. And I saw that same sort of spirit in Shane,” he said. “You could tell he wanted to do this and he had sincerity about it.”

Grinnell has posed in several of Balkowitsch’s photos, but in his favorite, he is pictured with a pipe and a buffalo skull wearing Eagle Sun Dance regalia — all items he says are important to his cultural understanding and practice.

“I get that same sort of feeling that 100 years from now when I’m long gone, this photo will be seen by someone else. By someone, another tribal member, that isn’t even born yet probably,” Grinnell said. “That was, to me, exciting and I was really appreciative to be able to have this opportunity to do that. That was part of the reason why I was moved to give Shane that name.”

Vanessa Dundon, also known as Sioux Z. Dezbah, Diné, lost her sight in one eye after a police officer shot her with a rubber bullet during the #NODAPL protests. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)
Vanessa Dundon, also known as Sioux Z. Dezbah, Diné, lost her sight in one eye after a police officer shot her with a rubber bullet during the #NODAPL protests. (Photo by Shane Balkowitsch)

In a time of erasure, ignorance and violence against Native Americans, visibility and community are crucial.

“We need more people like Shane. And this project of his that isn’t just an art,” Goodhouse said. “And because it demands time for each plate and preparation for each plate and the solution has to be added after every plate, that people aren’t there just to take pictures. They’re there and he’s engaging in conversation. And I think we just need more of that. People engaged in a project and listening to each other and stepping away as friends.”

But feedback is not always positive. Critics on the internet have brought up issues of cultural appropriation, exoticization, and of the danger of a white man profiting off of the images of Indigenous people. Balkowitsch takes the photos at no cost from the subjects. However, he publishes the photos in his books that he sells. A portion of the proceeds from the book sales are donated to the American Indian College Fund. He takes the rest of the revenue from his book sales. 

Balkowitsch says he doesn’t “dress up” his subjects in “costumes." He shows them in significant attire they choose to bring.

“People think that I’m buying stuff on Amazon and putting it on these Native Americans and pretending that this is what they wear,” Balkowitsch said. “This is their own clothes. This isn’t costumes. People use the word ‘costumes.’ It’s not a costume. Costumes are for Halloween. This is called their regalia and regalia is their formal, spiritual dress.”

If people on Facebook accuse Balkowitsch of these things, Landin steps in as a mediator and explains the reality of the process.

Approximately 80 million Native people were killed because of colonization. Thousands more face poverty and violence at the hands of an ambivalent government. But Balkowitsch says his work seeks to show that the people of these tribes are still here.

“You find out that they’re not gone, they’ve never been gone, they’ve never been eradicated, they never stopped to exist,” Balkowitsch said. “And not only did they not stop to exist, they didn’t lose their heritage, they didn’t lose their religion, they didn’t lose their food, they didn’t lose their language, they didn’t lose their clothing. They didn’t lose anything. It’s all still here. You just have to look for it.”

Landin said Balkowitsch situates himself as a tool for Indigenous people to tell their stories.

“He always says, ‘I just want to be on the right side of history," she said. "And when he tells me that, it just makes me feel empowered."

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Olivia Riggio is a writer and journalist based in New Jersey and New York. You can follow her on twitter @oliviariggio97 and email her at origgio35@gmail.com. 

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