There’s something about wet plate photography that I can’t get out of my head. Maybe it’s the process, maybe it’s the unpredictable nature of it – Sally Mann calls it “the angel of uncertainty.” Or maybe it’s the permanence of the objects themselves. When you look at a plate by Matthew Brady or Timothy O’Sullivan, for a moment you’re no longer part of the present. And I would argue that that sense of timelessness is one of the reasons a handful of modern photographers still choose to embrace the 170-year-old process.
In 2018 there was a Sally Mann show at the National Gallery called A Thousand Crossings. It is by far my favorite show I’ve ever seen since I’ve been in DC and, in fact, I went back to see it about a half-dozen times. While I love her entire body of work, it was the wet plate work—both plates and prints—that I found myself gravitating to the most. Far from the pristine edge-to-edge sharpness of modern photos, they exude life, inexorably binding them to the maker.
A couple weeks ago, I got an email form Shane Balkowitsch, a wet plate photographer from Bismarck, North Dakota who began shooting wet plate after seeing a plate of a motorcycle. Something about it refused to let go and he reached out to the photographer to ask about the image and the process behind it. 45 days later, he made his first wet plate—an image of his brother. That was 2012. Today, more than 3500 plates later, Shane’s work is in collections including the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the National Portrait Gallery. His ongoing project photographing Native Americans and helping to preserve their culture has earned him the name “Shadow Catcher.”
Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective
State Historical Society of North Dakota – https://www.history.nd.gov/archives/manuscripts/inventory/2014-P-025.html
Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock: https://www.awakethefilm.org/
Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings – https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2018/sally-mann-a-thousand-crossings.html
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