Collaborating with the past

The photographs in this, the first UK exhibition of American ambrotypist Shane Balkowitsch's work, have been selected from a recent acquisition by the Pitt Rivers Museum of forty original plates.

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.

Many of the participants are from the Lakota community of North Dakota, with whom Balkowitsch has a close connection. Another community that Balkowitsch has worked with closely is that of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara) of North Dakota. To mark this relationship, in 2018 Balkowitsch was bestowed the name Maa’ishda tehxixi Agu’ashi (Hidatsa) – the ‘Shadow Catcher’ – by Calvin Grinnell (Running Elk).

Gloria Dealing White Bull by Shane Balkowitsch, 2019
Developing the portrait of Gloria Dealing White Bull
Developing the portrait of Floris and Gloria Dealing White Bull
Floris and Gloria White Bull by Shane Balkowitsch, 2019
Gloria and Floris White Bull at the studio of Shane Balkowitsch


Ambrotype photographs are unique objects – there is no negative, or rather, this is it. Instead, the photograph is made by exposing an image through the camera onto a glass plate prepared with light-sensitive chemicals. The resulting negative, when viewed by reflected light against a black background, appears as a positive; the clear areas look black, and the exposed areas appear relatively light. 

This is called wet plate photography, since the light-sensitive chemicals are poured onto the glass plate shortly before being used. The resulting photograph was also called an ambrotype (‘imperishable picture’), and was popular from the mid 1850s until the 1870s when it was gradually superseded by less cumbersome processes. This was the method used to make many of the first portraits of Native American people, at a time when it was assumed that they would not survive the aggressive expansion of settler states.


Portrait of Running Elk, 1858

Portrait of He-kha'-ka Ma-ni (Running Elk), 1858, by the James E. McLees Studio, Washington DC. Made using the wet plate negative process. [PRM1998.128.4]


Portraits like this one of He-kha'-ka Ma-ni (Running Elk), a Yankton Sioux man, were taken by professional photographers in their studios when tribal delegations came to sign treaties in Washington DC, in the winter of 1857. Most of the treaties they signed ceded territory to the US Government. The Yankton Treaty for instance, signed in April 1858 between the United States government and the Yankton Sioux (Nakota), ceded most of eastern South Dakota to the United States government, and created a small reservation for native people.

Whilst many people view such images today as coming from a time of violent settler expansion and when racist views about the native population held sway, this exhibition and the voices of those Native Americans who have worked with Balkowitsch give another perspective on this visual history, one that sees them also as treasured images of ancestors who show their dignity and courage in the face of terrible circumstances. It is this understanding of the importance of these valued historical images that each person brings with them to Balkowitsch's studio, as they collaborate with the past to create a new portrait.

As Margaret Yellowbird-Landin, one of Balkowitsch’s partners in this work, says:


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.



Ernie Lapointe by Shane Balkowitsch, 2014
Ernie LaPointe at the studio of Shane Balkowitsch, 2019


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.

Ernie Wayne LaPointe (Crow Foot), 2019

Great grandson of Hunkpapa Lakota Chief Sitting Bull (Tatanka lyotake)


Ernie Wayne LaPointe,  great grandson of Sitting Bull, photographed by Shane Balkowitsch, 2019
Dakota Goodhouse and April Shooting Star Lee at the studio of Shane Blakowitsch



Lila ehanna wasicu aohanziyapi ahi. Mitxataku yuspanpi ahi. Breath Shadow Reflection Dream Nagxi owanzhila iyeskapi. Ehanna lel Nagxiyuspanpi  echichiyapi. Taku Shane nagxi wamanunpi huwo. Hecheshni. Owatohantuke mitxachantognakapi. Xewaxtoxta kin Shane Shadow Catcher echiyapi. Taku wastewalake.


A long time ago white men came and cast shadow upon us. They came and captured something of us. To the Lakota, Breath, Shadow, Reflection, and Dream are all Spirit. At that time, the Lakota called them "Shadow Catchers." Does Shane Balkowitsch steal our spirits? It is not so. He takes a moment and puts it in our hearts. The Hidatsa call Shane "Shadow Catcher." I like that. 


Dakota Goodhouse (Two Wars) and daughter April Shooting Star Lee

Hunkpapa Lakota nation

Photographed 30 August 2017

Portrait of Dakota Goodhouse (Two Wars) and daughter April Shooting Star Lee


  Read a longer interview with Dakota Goodhouse by exhibition curator Christopher Morton here


Debra Anne Haaland by Shane Balkowitsch, 2019


Shane’s work shines in its artistic merit and for its collaborative nature. It is genuine and enthusiastic on a human level. For the folks of many different Indian tribes who sit for his portraits, and who often become his life-long friends, Shane builds lasting rapport. It is this rapport, and the importance of honest collaboration between people of different cultures, that is so vital for our country and is at the heart of moving forward as a nation. I strive to emulate the rapport that Shane has achieved in his art in the work I’m doing in Congress. Shane’s photographs are not only beautiful, they convey the best example of good people working together to achieve something great.


Debra A. Haaland (Crushed Turquoise)

U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Laguna Pueblo

Photographed 23 June 2019





Wet plate of Gloria and Floris White Bull being developed at studio of Shane Balkowitsch


I am beside myself.  This life, this journey has been a long road with its own twists and turns. It has never been anything I would have expected. Life has taken some of the most important people in my life. I pray for the strength to endure this heartache. It makes those I love that much more valuable. I cannot imagine my life without my children and nieces and nephews (blood and adopted). They've given my life purpose. I live my life so that I may hold my head high in the next life among our ancestors; that I will be able to say I did my best.  We stand together out of love for our people, land, waters, the very lives that cannot voice their opposition – the trees, birds, the swimmers, the four legged, all creation that has every right to exist and be sustained by this world. Our love crosses the span of seven generations as we make the best decisions that we can with them in mind. What kind of life will they have? What will their quality of life be?


Floris White Bull (Brave Heart Woman) and Gloria White Bull (Makes the Road Woman)

Hunkpapa Lakota nation

Photographed 19 April 2019

Ira High Elk wet plate drying



I wanted my portrait taken for the overall experience in general of how it was done back then. It was a super cool opportunity with an amazing outcome. I also do believe there is a connection between my photograph and the historical ones, being that it followed the same procedure to capture an image that would ultimately go down in history, which I believe is a great honor that I'm thankful to have been a part of and have been selected for.


Ira High Elk (Scares the Eagle)

Lakota nation

Photographed 23 October 2020


Ira Lawrence High Elk
Ira High Elk watching his wet plate develop


Ira Lawrence High Elk in Balkowitsch's studio




Otakwan Acahkos Iskwiw in the studio of Shane Balkowitsch, 2019
Otakwan Acahkos Iskwiw by Shane Balkowitsch, 2019


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 traditions that are intricate to our lives. Our regalia tells a story of who we are, and our interconnectedness to the land and all living things.  Our incredible genetic memories highlight each of our respective Nations showcasing this resiliency. The past compositions by Edward Curtis are interlaced with historical ties. Curtis was able to capture the dreams for the future, for the subsequent generations to come of the people he photographed. In Shane Balkowitschs’ work he is increasing our visibility to the entire world by allowing us to tell our own stories, carrying on the tradition established by Curtis but with more authenticity. Weaving past/present and future into one image with incredible depth. This enables us to express our hopes and dreams for those who come after, and to imagine our collective visible strength and beauty.


Otakwan Acahkos Iskwiw (Evening Star Woman)

Métis nation

Photographed 23 August 2019


Plate of Frank Albert White Bull developing, 2019



I have always been fascinated with photography. My first experience was looking through an old Life magazine back in the early 70s when I was about 8 years old and found a picture of Chief Bigfoot laying in the snow frozen. My ancestors took the time to take some photos back in the 1800s … I feel the connection with today’s wet plate process and the ones taken from over 150 years ago. Pilamaya Yelo, Shane, for the opportunity to make history.


Frank Albert White Bull

Hunkpapa Lakota nation

Photographed 23 August 2019


Frank Albert White Bull, by Shane Balkowitsch 2019


Shane Balkowitsch by Lea Black, 2019


Richard Orville Grey Day by Shane Balkowitsch, 2017


I am wolf eyes, looking. I am Dakota. This photo is to remember who we are as Dakota, Lakota, Nakota – a nation.

I am a wolf dreamer, wolf protector. I see through their eyes, my medicine.

Thank you, Shane, for taking my photo. The shadow catcher has come…



Richard Gray Day (Wolf Eyes Looking)

Hunkpapa Lakota nation

Photographed 1 May 2017


Shane in the dark room by William DeKay


Exhibition credits

Curation and website design: Christopher Morton

Display design: Josh Rose

Additional photography: Shane Balkowitsch, Lea Black, William DeKay & Chad Nodland


Special thanks to Dakota Goodhouse and all other participants quoted in the exhibition


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