Recreating a little piece of history
By Dustin White
Mandan News, editor
Nearly 140 years separate two photographs taken at the Custer House in the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. The first, taken by Orlando S. Goff in 1875, depicted General Custer, along with family and a few camp soldiers, sitting on the front porch of the house.
The second photo was taken on Sunday, July 13, 2014, by Shane Balkowitsch, North Dakota’s only wet plate photographer. Attempting to recapture history, Balkowitsch painstakingly recreated that photo Goff had taken over a century ago.
Even though the two artists lived in two very different times, they were connected by their passion for this one art form: a wet plate photography known as ambrotype.
Today, there are only about 1000 artists who continue to use this process. Most are quite experienced photographers who are looking for a new challenge to conquer. For Balkowitsch, he came to this photographic process in a very different manner.
Working in the technology industry, he wanted to find something else.
“Technology is my life, so I find myself running from it,” Balkowitsch said.
He was first exposed to wet plate photography when he saw a few examples online. Wanting to learn more, Balkowitsch began researching the process.
Eventually he stumbled upon a man named John Coffer, who had produced a manual on the subject.
Knowing nearly nothing about photography, and armed with just this relatively short work, Balkowitsch set out on a period of trial and error. Trying to understand the basics of exposure and composition, he eventually taught himself how to take these photos.
He would eventually take his first successful photo in 2012, and from there, it has boomed. In two short years, Balkowitsch has produced over 720 plates.
“This really is a passion of mine,” Balkowitsch said. “It’s something I enjoy.”
The main subject of Balkowitsch’s photos has always been humans, which is another unique aspect of his photography. For him, it is about capturing part of the human aspect.
“Each one of these plates are unique. There are no copies or duplicates,” Balkowitsch said. “What I’m doing is capturing 10 seconds of your life, in silver.”
Another unique aspect of Balkowitsch’s photography is that he doesn’t charge for his service. Instead, he just gets to keep his favorite plate out of the shots. Other photographers using this process may charge anywhere from $200-2000, but for Balkowitsch, it is more about enjoying a hobby.
“I just love the art,” Balkowitsch said. “I like to capture people.”
This love is something that he wants to share with the community as well. One way in which he wants to continue sharing this love, even after his death, is by sending off all the plates he has kept to their respective families.
In his will, Balkowitsch said that he’s going to have it so that each plate is given to either the person it depicts, or to a family member. His idea is that in one swoop, 30 to 40 years from now, 1000s of plates will go out to these families.
He has been surprised by the reaction he has gotten though.
“I didn’t think anyone would be interested in me when I started,” Balkowitsch said.
Having a love for the art form is one of the reasons Balkowitsch wanted to reproduce Goff’s photo. Being part of that history, and sharing a space with a man who had enjoyed the same art form was something he looked forward to.
“It was wonderful thinking that I was standing on the same ground that he (Goff) had stood on,” Balkowitsch said. “Hopefully, Goff was smiling down on us, that someone was mentioning him. And maybe in 300 years someone will pick up one of my photos and do the same.”
Wanting to continue to share this art form, Balkowitsch met with Matt Schanandore, from Fort Lincoln, after the photo shoot. Wanting to donate the four plates he took on Sunday to the Fort Lincoln, Balkowitsch was given just that opportunity.
One of the plates will end up hanging on a wall in the Custer House, while the three others will be used to create a display about the history of wet plating at Fort Lincoln.
They also discussed the possibility of Balkowitsch becoming the official wet plate photographer of Fort Lincoln. He said the goal would be to get a large collection of original pieces for future generations to enjoy.
The first photographic process introduced was one called the daguerreotype process. A French artist and chemist, by the name Louis Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, while researching the chemistry and mechanics that were needed to capture images, accidentally broke a mercury thermometer.
Examining the results, Daguerre discovered a method to develop images on plates. Over the next few years, he would further refine this method until the method was fully successful.
It was on Jan. 19, 1839, that the French Academy of Science announced the daguerreotype process. Instead of patenting his process, the French government arranged so that they would acquire the rights to the method, in exchange for giving Daguerre a lifetime pension.
In turn, the French government would go on to gift the daguerreotype process to the the world. However, a few days before the French government made their announcement that they were giving the method to the world for free, a patent agent, on the behalf of Daguerre, filed a patent in England. While the rest of the world was free to use the process, in Britain, one had to purchase a license to legally benefit from the method.
In the same year that Daguerre would announce his photographic process, another man by the name of William Fox Talbot announced his calotype, or talbotype process. With these two announcement, the year in which photography was born became cemented as 1839.
Unlike Daguerre, Talbot set out to patent his process from the beginning. Part of the reason for this was so that he could recuperate the thousands of pounds he had spent on developing the method. Not all had to pay for licensing for the process though, as Talbot waived the fee for amateur photographers.
One of the individuals who would use the calotype process was a sculpture named Frederick Scott Archer. It was his want to capture the image of his sculptures that led him to Talbot’s photographic method.
For Archer though, the calotype process was dissatisfying. With the long exposures needed, as well as poor contrast and definition produced, Archer sought out a new method of capturing images.
In 1848, nearly a decade after photography was invented, Archer discovered a new method, which he called the wet plate collodion process. Three years later, he would have his method published in “The Chemist.” Having done so, without patenting his process first, he gave his method freely to the world.
Continuing to experiment with the new method he invented, Archer would later go on to develop the ambrotype process jointly with Peter Wickens Fry.
It was this process that Goff would later discover. Having been born in 1843, just a few years before photography was invented, he would go on to learn the art form himself after a stint in the army.
Locating to Lyons, N.Y., Goff first learned photography. Shortly later, he traveled to Portage, Wis., where he worked as an itinerant photographer. Eventually, he began moving west to Dakota Territory, first settling in Yankton and then later Bismarck.
It was in 1873 that Goff made his home in this area. He sat up a studio, and soon after, became the post photographer for Fort Abraham Lincoln. During this time, he was granted the chance to take a series of photos of Custer, various officers and a few of their wives. Among the photos that Goff took was the last known photograph of Custer, as well as the one in which Balkowitsch set out to recapture.
It was also during Goff’s time in Bismarck that he married his wife, Anna E. Eaton, in 1875. They would go on to have one daughter, Bessie.
Goff would go on to capture the first photographs of a number of famous Native Americans as well, including Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce and Sitting Bull.
In 1878, Goff left his home in Bismarck and began a photographic tour of the Plains. For the next 22 years, he would continue to capture little pieces of history. However, in 1900, Goff would leave the life of photography, and move onto new endeavors.
Resettling in Montana, he would run, and eventually be elected in 1907, to the Montana House of Representatives. That era of his life wouldn’t last long, as he would shortly move to Boise, Idaho, along with is wife, daughter and son-in-law. This would eventually be his final resting place, when he died on Oct. 17, 1916.
Staying true to the method Goff would have used in 1875, Balkowitsch has set out to remain as authentic as possible.
A key element of the process is that the plate stays wet. It is this aspect that caused this photographic method to be inconvenient, as well as difficult.
To begin, a solution called collodion is poured onto the plate, which is then tilted in order to allow the solution to cover the entire plate. One of the issues with this method is that collodion slowly eats away at the surfaces in which it touches.
The plate is then placed into a silver nitrate bath, where the silver binds with the iodine and bromide contained in the collodium solution. As this process makes the plate sensitive to light, a photographer would have to set up either a dark room, or dark tent if they were traveling, in order to be able to keep from exposing the plate to light.
A photographer would then have to rush, first putting the plate into a light-proof holder, which would then be slid into the camera.
As these cameras did not have the technology of our modern ones, exposing the plate had to be done manually. The camera itself was basically a box with a lens, so the exposure process actually required the photographer to take the cap off the lens, and then replace it after the set time had passed.
The rush wasn’t over for the photographer though, as they had to once again rush the plate, which was safely inside the light-proof box, back to their processing area, where they would pour a developer on over the plate and then agitate, until the image began to appear. The next step was to wash off the developer, by putting the plate in a bath of water, and the initial process was largely finished.
However, as the photograph is largely composed of silver, which tarnishes relatively quickly, the plate would then have a coat of varnish applied to it, and a tar placed on the back.
While the photo itself was processing, allowing the plate to dry would have caused the image to disappear, and thus the work for nothing.
The image itself, once fully developed, is of extremely high quality. Studies that have examined photos processed through this method were shown to be written at the nano level, which causes high resolution. Looking at one of these photographs under a microscope, one would not be able to observe any pixels.
There was one other slight problem associated with taking photos this way. The photograph would be taken backwards and upside down. So while looking through the lens, a photographer would have to orient themselves to this view. After a short while though, photographers would become used to this perspective.
As Balkowitsch explained, the lens that these cameras used actually processed the light and image in the same manner that eyes also do. The reason we see images as we do is because the brain processes the information being sent to it, and rearranges how the image appears. Modern cameras also achieve this same method by the utilization of a mirror.
For more information on Balkowitsch, go to http://sharoncol.balkowitsch.com/wetplate.htm.
For additional photos, check out the photo section of our website.