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An Archivable Experience with Local Wet Plate Photographer

On the third and top floor of the historic Dakota Business College building, with three sets of double floor-to-ceiling windows along the east wall, is a studio. After entering the front door on 8th Street South, you make your way around tiled floor corners and up worn wooden stairs. By the college’s closing in 1978, nearly 30,000 students studied penmanship, accounting, bookkeeping, shorthand, typing, and stenography at the college—and while you may have never entered the building during that time, you can feel the memories sealed into the building.

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"Haven" 8x10 tintype of the Dakota Business College buikding that Kary's studio is located in, on 8 St S, 2023.

The bottom floor now houses storefronts including an art gallery. Inside the building, scattered throughout the first and second floors are one-off rooms rented by local artists, and the third floor, accessed by one final steep staircase, is the home base and studio for Old School Collodion. 

Kary Janousek runs the wet plate studio in Fargo offering tintype and ambrotype portraits, she also takes her portable dark room on the road and attends a variety of different events and pop-ups. Kary is one of four in the state and the sole woman who does this type of photography.

In her studio on the top floor of the Dakota Business College, you’ll find a large, wide-open space illuminated by natural light—something that is crucial to her process and style. The many window sills are lined with sheets of glass and tin portraying anything from a young person’s portrait to an experimental piece with double exposure. As you admire each one, it’s hard to remember that these photos are from the current day; some with blurred edges, the contrasting UV black and white color, or even the lack of smiles—this all give Kary’s work such a nostalgic feel. It’s not until you notice something from the present day, like a modern camera, style of clothing, or even spotting someone you know, that you might be thrown back into the present, creating an alluring cognitive dissonance.

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Headshot of Kary, taken by Chase Evert
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But, of course, this makes sense—Kary has always had an interest in vintage. For many years, she ran a successful business, finding, restoring, and selling vintage and antique hats. She had loyal customers and a community who all shared a love for the past. Years into her business, in which she often worked with models and modeled herself, she came across a photo scan of a friend online. The photo was a wet plate image done by a photographer in Bismarck, ND, Shane Balkowitsch—someone who would introduce her to another appreciation of the past.

“It was more than just him teaching [me], that’s why it was a special friendship. Because, the arts, as you probably know, have a lot to do with your selfesteem. You need more of a mentor than a teacher because you need somebody with an ego that tells you that you’re going to kick butt, and it builds you up. He was excellent at that, and I wouldn’t have had anyone else assist me,” Kary said. “I’m a pretty bold person, but it helps tremendously to get you past any fear you have.”

After connecting, the two worked on a collodion project where Kary modeled her vintage clothing. Throughout the process, she felt a pull toward the art of wet-plate photography.

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The photo that Kary and Shane collaborated on!

“We go in there and he doesn’t explain, but I see him do the whole process. I was looking for something creative, and it just clicked [I thought], ‘This is what I’m doing.’ It was immediate,” Kary said. “It’s cheesy, but it was like an ‘aha moment,’ and those come very few. In my opinion, everybody can do what they want, but you should take heed of that, there’s some reason for it.”

And the rest is history… literally. Kary left her photoshoot and bought three collodion manuals in hopes to learn all she could and invested in a variety of old equipment, even if she wasn’t quite sure how to use it. After spending quite a bit of money on a camera that ended up needing a lot of repairs, Kary felt intimated and frustrated. After an encouraging talk with her husband, she decided to call Shane and ask him for some guidance. That curiosity driven phone call sparked an immersive experience as Kary would end up spending lots of time under Shane’s mentorship in Bismarck during the pandemic.

“[Shane] was so gracious. He was, first of all, thrilled that somebody wanted to learn. Then he was just shocked because I don’t think he thought that anything even crossed my mind in that direction. So, he immediately [said], ‘Oh, I’ll give you your first camera, come out here, I’ll teach you, we’ll get this sorted out for you,’ “Kary said. “I don’t think it was initially going to be a long-term mentorship, but because of the pandemic, it just worked out and we became good friends. He ended up mentoring me elbow to elbow for almost two years. A lot of that was [over] Zoom, but I went out there a lot, it was a combination; I’m always grateful for that.”

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Now, just a few years into Kary starting to learn wet plate photography, she operates a commission, walk-in, and event-based collodion photography experience for the FM community.

In your Old School Collodion private studio session, you choose your size and either a glass or metal plate with your image printed on it.

Same of Kary’s work!

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"Portrait of Tom Brosseau" 8x10 amber stained glass ambrotyoe, 2023
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"Don Juan" 8x10 ambrotype of Drew Swenson. 2023
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"Loves Epitaph" 8x10 clear glass ambrotype backed with a painted tintype with Steph Gartner. 2023

When a client comes in for their appointment, they’re greeted by a beautiful building, a warm sunlit room, a variety of props and backdrop options, and, most importantly, an abundance of ideas.

Wet plate photography starts with setting up the subject. Guided by Kary, clients start to envision what the setup will look like. She tosses out ideas and thinks out loud to see what sticks and what makes you excited. Once in place, she makes her way to the darkroom.

Collodion is a chemical solution of cellulose nitrate that was first used as a liquid bandage to seal wounds on the battlefield. Gustave Le Gray first theorized that the chemical could be used on flat surfaces and adhere to silver nitrate molecules to make it sensitive to light, but it wasn’t until Frederick Scott Archer figured out the measurements that the wet plate process was invented around 1850.

Kary preps the plate (either glass or metal) and coats it in collodion. She then dips that in a solution to make it sensitive to light, which must be done in the dark with only a safe red light to guide her, then she inserts it in a holder to bring to the camera.

Making sure the lens cap is on, she puts the holder (which keeps the collodioncovered plate in the dark, or unexposed) in the camera.

The exposure time varies, but most of the time, since Kary works in bright natural light, you will have to sit still anywhere from 4-11 seconds, using head support if needed. Kary removes the lens cap and exposes the plate for the determined time. Then, she disappears into the small rooms at the top of the staircase to work the magic.

“You have to go through experience and instinct, and it’s not always right—and that’s the beauty of it! It’s a handmade product and so sometimes there are dust speckles. As long as it isn’t across the face or so distracting that you can’t pay attention to what the image is,” Kary said.

While inside her dark room, lit only by a red light, Kary goes through the steps of developing the plate. One of the last steps washes away the nonexposed parts of the plate, bringing the image to life.

Afterward, the plate does need to be washed and eventually varnished as it can scratch, but that more or less is the process of collodion photography—this almost makes it sound too simple. This process requires detailed care and an understanding of light. When Kary exposes the plates to capture the image, she has to think about how much light exists in the room, how that light will affect the shadows and highlights, and how she wants the light to show up, among many other things. And then, there’s the chemical process, but Kary doesn’t mind the many steps or working her now muscle memory-trained way through a dark room, she’s grateful to share the experience with others.

“Just like when I take your photo today,” she said, “you’re trusting me to portray you somehow. I can’t be in complete control of this process, I do my best, but there’s a vulnerability there. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable from time to time. And at times, it works out and at times it doesn’t, but I love it.”

Part of what makes Kary’s process so special is sharing it. You’ll often see Kary bringing Old School Collodion into the field through a variety of partnerships. This year, to celebrate TEDxFargo, she brought her portable dark room and camera to The 716 Space building for walk-in photos, but Kary’s talents aren’t just limited to the FM community.

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"Landscape of Theodore Roosevelt National ParkTM 8x10 ambrotype, made possible by Tom Brosseau & the Medora Foundation. This is from Kary's recent travels west this summer!

This summer, Kary was invited to Medora, ND to bring her wet plate experience out west. In a partnership with The Great American Folk Show and the Medora Foundation, Kary was able to capture portraits of the reenactors at the historical Von Hoffman House in downtown Medora, as well as ambrotypes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Experiences like that, the events she holds in partnership with Bonanzaville, and more, continue to expose Kary to new environments as well as the community to this slice of the past.

Check out Old School Collodion’s upcoming events!

Kary will open for commissions starting this month.

Saturday, October 7, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Pop-up tintype portraits at the Jasper Hotel pre-sign-up appreciated limited time slots.

Friday, October 20, 5-7 p.m. Reception for Kary’s art exhibition, “The Hearts Performance” at the Paramount Center for the Arts historical theatre in St. Cloud, MN. The exhibition will run from October 1-31, 2023.

Saturday, November 11, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, December 9, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Walk-in tintype day and open studio at Old School Collodion, pre-sign-up appreciated.

In addition to her fieldwork and events, Kary also has submitted her work in multiple exhibits. She recently had a collection in the Rourke Art Gallery + Museum and was awarded the Gretchen Kottke Gallerist’s Award as one of the artists in this year’s annual, 64th Midwestern Preview.

This process may seem cumbersome compared to today’s easy access to image taking, all we have to do is pull a phone out of our pocket; but just as with other forms of art, it’s that detailed process and labor that makes it so special.

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"The Sun Maiden 8x10 amber stained glass ambrotype backed with glitter board paper. Winner of the Gretchen Kottke Gallerists Award at the Rourke Midwestern invitational exhibition, 2023.

Visit Kary in her studio this fall, check out her website to book a time, or watch Old School Collodion’s socials to see when she’s open for walk-ins.

Written by Geneva Nodland

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