North Dakota's Shane Balkowitsch makes photographic history with wet-plate collaboration

In what was likely the largest wet-plate photographic collaboration in history, Bismarck photographer Shane Balkowitsch created "No Vaccine for Death", a modern, COVID-19-influenced take on "Triumph of Death" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Collaborators in Shane Balkowitsch's "No Vaccine for Death" begin taking their places Saturday, July 17 in Bismarck. W. Scott Olson / Special to The Forum

BISMARCK — Shane Balkowitsch may have made photographic history.

More than 100 collaborators came together Saturday, July 17, at the University of Mary’s Marian Grotto in Bismarck to create what is likely the largest wet-plate photographic collaboration in history. The final image, called “No Vaccine for Death,” was inspired by the painting "Triumph of Death" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, circa 1562 . In Saturday’s version, more than 75 collaborators were in the image, with dozens more helping behind the scenes.

Balkowitsch has already made a national and international name for himself with his images. He has photographed the likes of boxer Evander Holyfield as well as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. A documentary featuring Balkowitsch was also released on Amazon Prime .

He is currently engaged with a project that hopes to preserve 1,000 portraits of Northern Plains Native Americans using the wet-plate photography process, a highly specialized form of photography from the early days of the art. Collodion is poured over a plate, immersed in a bath of silver nitrate, exposed in the camera, and then developed — all within 10 minutes before the chemicals dry. The process creates what is called an Ambrotype. While some wet-plate photographers use clear glass plates, which allows for multiple contact prints, Balkowitsch uses black glass, which means every finished plate is unique and unable to be copied.


Collaborators in Shane Balkowitsch's "No Vaccine for Death" begin striking poses Saturday, July 17 in Bismarck. Their poses are intended to mimic Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Triumph of Death". W. Scott Olson / Special to The Forum

This project has already resulted in an acclaimed book, "Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective" , and he is well on his way to a second.

“No Vaccine for Death” is Balkowitsch’s fifth large-scale collaboration. The first was "Murder’s Gulch" in 2016, based on a historic section of downtown Bismarck from the 1800s. Then came “The Capsizing of Humanity,” based on an 1818 painting by Theodore Gericault called “The Raft of the Medusa.” This was followed by “Liberty Trudges Through Injustice,” based on “Liberty Leading the People,” the famous painting from the French Revolution by Eugène Delacroix. Fifty-three collaborators came together for that project. Then came “Throne of the Gods,” inspired by the work "Olympians" by Nicolas-Andre Monsiau.

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Why do a large collaboration on this? “To bring creative people together,” Balkowitsch said. “I had been collaborating in my studio, and it sounded like it would be fun if I brought makeup, hair, costumes, set design all together in something large."

More than 100 people were involved with “No Vaccine for Death.” Chief among them was Marek Dojs, associate professor of communications at the University of Mary, who has a background in filmmaking. With an Alessandro Gibellini 8-by-10 large-format camera mounted in the back of a pickup truck, Balkowitsch and Dojs arranged the collaborators to represent the painting, organizing them in sections.

Shane Balkowitsch created sections based off of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Triumph of Death" to arrange his wet-plate photograph entitled "No Vaccine for Death". W. Scott Olson / Special to The Forum


“Two years ago, this was going to be something completely different,” Balkowitsch said. “We had a painting about some saints descending from heaven and other people ascending into heaven. It was a fight between good and evil idea. Then COVID hit, and we knew we had to do something about the pandemic.”

“We’re not trying to mimic the painting exactly,” he continued. “Some people think every element has to be exact, and that’s really not our intention at all.”

“One of the challenges,” Dojs noted, “is that we have a lot more people in the frame. This image draws eyes to lots of different places.”

Shane Balkowitsch, seen in the foreground, Marek Dojs are seen Saturday, July 17 in Bismarck in the process of shooting "No Vaccine for Death". W. Scott Olson / Special to The Forum

“We just want to pay some homage to the original image,” Balkowitsch said.

On the hillside overlooking the Missouri River, the collaborators got into position. Balkowitsch made three test plates, adjusted the people and props after each one. “I only need one useable plate,” he says. “If I get one plate that represents what I’m trying to achieve, it doesn’t matter what else happens that day.”


Collaborators in Shane Balkowitsch's "No Vaccine for Death" watch the wet plate photograph develop Saturday, July 17 in Bismarck. W. Scott Olson / Special to The Forum

The fourth plate was perfect. And while there are wet-plate images with more people in them — crowd shots and such — “No Vaccine for Death” appears to be the largest fine-art collaborative project in history.

The final plate will become part of the permanent holdings of the North Dakota Historical Society.

The final wet-plate photograph of Shane Balkowitsch's "No Vaccine for Death" is seen developing Saturday, July 17 in Bismarck. W. Scott Olson / Special to The Forum

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