This Photographer Only Had 20 Minutes to Photograph Greta Thunberg

All images by Shane Balkowitsch and Chad Nodland. Used with permission. 

“I saw a wet plate online and something drew me to it,” explains Shane Balkowitsch. He continues, “My first attempt at a wet plate is a photograph of my brother, taken on October 4th, 2012.” Seven years after the fact, Shane has burst into the spotlight with a very special photograph of a hugely influential young woman. On the morning of October 7th, Shane received the call he had been hoping for. He would be photographing Greta Thunberg. Since the shoot, the images taken of Greta have blown up all over the internet. But Shane’s work goes much deeper than a single shoot. He has several fascinating projects that are more than worth your time. Excited by his rise, we spoke to Shane about his work, and to discuss what could likely be his defining moment.

“…when you get the call to capture Greta and you only have 20 minutes to do so in the middle of a field with your portable darkroom, game on!”

Phoblographer: Wet plate photography is by no means an easy way of creating a photograph. How long did it take you to get to a standard where you felt it could be your career, and was there a pivotal moment where you said, “I can do this!”

SB: I am still working on this process, trying to perfect and master it, something which I feel is almost unattainable. I do not do this for a living, I own an online company. And it is with that resource, I am able to fall down this rabbit hole of wet plate photography.

I think it took me for sure a couple of years to feel that I was doing OK. It has been said, “you do not take a wet plate photograph, it must be given to you.” In many ways that is so very true. You could come into my studio today and something could go wrong with the chemistry or the process and I would be unable to make a plate. This simply is how it works. All wet plate artists know this in their heart. So when you get the call to capture Greta and you only have 20 minutes to do so in the middle of a field with your portable darkroom, game on!

Phoblographer: Can you tell us about your gear set up and your method of producing the photos, please?

SB: My studio cameras that I use I lovingly call “Red Molly I” and “Red Molly II”, both of which were made for me in Italy by Alessandro Gibellini. They are 8×10 format, but I have inserts for round plates and 4×5 and 5×7 as well. All of my serious work is always no smaller than 8×10 in size and I shoot exclusively on black glass, so they are called black glass ambrotypes, which means “eternal impression” in Latin.

Phoblographer: You’ve recently worked with the young woman of the moment, Greta Thunberg. How did that come about?

SB: I have been working on a series called Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective. So when I heard she was coming to town, I made a call into Jen Jewett down at Standing Rock, a friend and collaborator with my series. I wanted to see if I could get Greta into my studio, because there I can do my best work and control the light and the process more, but that simply was not going to happen because of her tight schedule. So my famous last words were, all I need is 15 minutes to get this done for her cause and legacy. So on October 7th, I got the call in the afternoon that the shoot was on and that this young fabulous activist was going to take time out of her schedule to sit in front of my camera. But I had to go to Standing Rock to capture this. This means taking along all my gear, camera, portable darkroom and chemistry, a very daunting task for such a short amount of time.

…I had complete faith in her and as you can see from the images, she did an amazing job for me.”

Phoblographer: How was the session with her? Any challenging moments?

SB: We only spent about 20 minutes together and to be honest, it is pretty much a blur. She was such a fabulous soul and so gracious, but I had to do some coaching with her since I knew the exposures with the light that afternoon was going to be about three seconds long. Any movement by her in the chair for the closeup or the standing plate, (now called “Standing For Us All”,) [could spoil the image.] It’s difficult for those who do not practice wet plate photography to understand how difficult it is to stand in a windy, open field and not move!

Photo by Chad Nodland

But I had complete faith in her and as you can see from the images, she did an amazing job for me. We also had wind to contend with and there is always added difficulty when my portable darkroom is in play. I have to climb into this box and pull a shroud over my body and develop the plates under red light conditions right on the spot. All of this must be done without the plate drying, for if it dries, it would be immediately lost.

Photo by Chad Nodland.

Phoblographer: Have you seen any backlash to your shoot with Greta? Is the wet plate process hard on the environment?

SB: There has been some backlash since posting my images of Greta. Honestly, it is always with a slant of negativity, which is really rather bothersome. So I posted a rebuttal on Facebook and I am going to simply post it here for you.

Phoblographer: How did she respond to her final image, and how did that make you feel?

SB: I initially only had 15 minutes allotted with her, but I knew if I could get her to see the first plate, the closeup come to life, I might have a shot at a second portrait. When the first image came to life, Greta and her father (Svante) were all smiles. I looked up at him and said, “Can we do one more?” His response, “absolutely!” So that is how “Standing For Us All” came to be, given one more opportunity at history with another exposure.

Phoblographer: You opened up Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio in 2018. How is that going?

SB: It is remarkable how my work has improved since using natural light exclusively [which I do in my studio.] Dr. Feliux Raymer wrote the definitive in the early 1900’s on building a great natural light studio and it was this book that I used to build my own.

Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio is now the cornerstone of my work. It is a place that photographers have traveled from all over the country to see. They fly in and we create together, it is really rather remarkable.

Phoblographer: You’ve previously stated that it’s the “first natural light studio built from the ground up in America in over 100 years.” Why do you think there has been such a gap, and what made you decide to go this route?

SB: Who is crazy enough to spend the kind of resources to do this in the present-day? The fact is, as film came about and then digital, non-natural light became the most common way (flash, continuous bulbs) to take images. When electricity came on the scene, like always, photographers had a more convenient way to take pictures. Who wants to wait around for the sun to be just perfect to snap a shot? Modern photography does not require this. I had always known that in the Victorian Era, this was how it was done – I had seen the pictures of the studios.

You could never take a photograph at night in the 1800s. But I also saw the results of the work from that era, and I always knew the full natural light was the best light for photographers, especially portraits, in my opinion.

Phoblographer: Finally, as the coverage of the Greta image spreads, are there any other projects or focuses you have coming up?

SB: I am booked out for the next seven months in my studio for my Friday sessions, there is no shortage of projects or ideas. Just this week we are going to pay respect to Julia Margaret Cameron, the finest female photographer in the 1800s. She did a picture of King Arthur after his death on a boat as his soul traveled. That is this Friday. See attached. We even have a 12′ wood boat that we will be bringing into my studio to attempt this. I also do large collaborations each year. We get over 50 people each year and takes us about eight months to plan and produce these works, the links to the first four such shoots are below.

Gulch

Capsizing

Liberty

Throne

You can see more of Shane’s work by visiting his website and Instagram.