Whilst in Oxford University’s quite mind-boggling and amazing Pitt Rivers museum/collection recently I stumbled across something that I could easily digest; a series of beautiful monochrome portraits by the American photographer Shane Balkowitsch.

The portraits, as high quality portraiture should, attracted my attention and drew an emotional response. The sipia toned images of Native Americanscould have been taken a cenury ago and reminded me of the wonderful portraits taken by Welsh Victorian photographer John Thomas, who worked in the mid-late 19th century.

The wet plate photographs of 21st century American photographer Shane Balkowitsch (left) use the same technique as the celebrated “Welsh Way of Life” Photographer of the 1860’s John Thomas, example on right.

21st century photographer Shane Balkowitsch has, like John Thomas, used the ancient the wet plate method. The results are wonderful.

Otakwan Acahkos Iskwiw (Evening Star Woman) – Metis Nation, taken August 2019 ©Shane Balkowitsch

The Pitt Museum’s curator explains: “Balkowitsch has set out to create one thousand portraits of Native American people using this historical wet plate photographic process, and to collaborate closely with each sitter on their photographs.”

Ira High Elk (Scares the Eagle) – Lakota Nation, taken October 2020 ©Shane Balkowitsch

The essentail relationship that Balkowitsch has achieved with the community, and by extension, the sitter, is evident in the photographs. The expressions and the eyes tell me that they trust Shane. Many of the participants are from the Lakota community of North Dakota, with whom Balkowitsch has a close connection.

Balkowitsch follows the style taken by professional photographers when tribal delegations came to sign treaties in Washington DC, ceding their territory to the US Government. Many view such images originating from periods of violent settler expansion, as disturbing. It was a period when racist views about the native population held sway. But this exhibition togeteher with the voices of those Native Americans who have worked with Balkowitsch give another perspective.

“Shane Balkowitsch’s work highlights the ability to visually express to the world that we are still here as a living vibrant people, carrying on traditionals that are intricate to our lives. Shane Balkowitsch’s work is increasing our visibility to the entire world by allowing us to tell our own stories…..” Otakwan Acahkos Iskwiw (Evening Star Woman)

Floris white Bull (Brave Heart Woman) & Gloria White Bull (Makes the Road Woman) Hunkpap Lakota Nation, taken April 2019 ©Shane Balkowitsch

“These images show that we are a people that could not be erased from this earth. They are for our future generations to see we are still here, we are strong, we are humble, we are pitiful, we are honored, we are grateful, we are indigenous, we are unified.”

“I humble myself, when my people speak my name, so said Sitting Bull. Shane Balkowitsch humbly asked me if he could take a wet plate of me. Out of humbleness and respect grows greatness,” explained Ernie Wayne LaPointe (Crow Feet), the Great Grandson of Chief Sitting Bull

Balkowitsch’s work is a wonderful example where collaborating with a community leads to preservation. Moreover is a project where the whole community are not just on-board, but very proud to be involved. The results speak for themselves.

ends – R. Jones

(for more about Shane Balkowitsch see: http://sharoncol.balkowitsch.com/wetplate.htm)