What began as just a normal downtown alley, would be transported to the late 1800s, as a group of collaborators came together to create a historic photo shoot. Inspired by Jacob Riis, Shane Balkowitsch set off on a journey, with nearly 50 collaborators, and over a dozen spectators, to bring to life a piece of Bismarck’s history: Murderer’s Gulch.
The journey began almost six months ago. Looking through photographs, Balkowitsch came across one that he has been in love with for quite some time. The photographer was Riis, who, in 1888, captured an image he called “Bandit’s Roost.”
Depicting an alley in New York, Riis argued that the alley was a breeding ground for criminal behavior and disorder. His photos, including “Bandit’s Roost,” would go on to reveal how outsiders often reacted in horror when faced with people who composed “the other half.”
Wanting to capture a similar image in Bismarck, Balkowitsch took the idea to Facebook. Within 24 hours of pitching the concept, more than 40 collaborators had signed on, and the project began rolling.
Unbeknownst to Balkowitsch, the project would lead him to an interesting discovery. While Riis spoke of the disorder that was bred in the alleys of New York, Bismarck had a very similar story. One street in particular, Fourth Street, had a dark past.
Known as Bloody Fourth, or Murderer’s Gulch, it was deemed as the wickedest street in the wickedest town. And Balkowitsch had chosen a location right in that vicinity. A new inspiration was brought to the project, and a piece of Bismarck history was going to be brought to life.
With the inspiration set, the journey was beginning to take its next steps forward. Characters were being developed, costumes constructed, the details finalized.
As the excitement continued to grow, Balkowitsch called together the collaborators. Wanting to make sure everyone was on the same page, and giving time for introductions, a diverse group had been assembled. Present were photographers, actors, historians, wood workers, artists, writers; individuals from a wide array of backgrounds.
The photo shoot was bigger than any one person, and would require the help of many to make it possible. Wanting to achieve a historical portrayal, while allowing room for artistic ingenuity, Balkowitsch surrounded himself with those who could help make his vision a reality. Doing so, the project began to take on a life of its own, as each collaborator added a little part of themselves to it.
An entirely new story was beginning to form; a fictional portrayal informed by history.
Additional meetings would be held between various subgroups. Customs were designed and created, scenery constructed, music chosen; every aspect of the historical shoot was coming together. What had simply started as an idea was becoming reality.
After half a year of planning and creating, June 11 had nearly approached. One final hurdle still had to be cleared; getting the props in place. Helping with the ordeal, John Sullivan IV, no stranger to Balkowitch’s wetplates, was on hand.
However, the task wouldn’t be without its challenges. Loading the truck with props created by Jason Lueder, the set carpenter, a hiccup would be experienced. The truck blew a fuel pump, and was out of commission. Not one to just give up, Balkowitsch and Sullivan quickly recovered.
Arriving at the east alley near 425 E. Broadway Ave. early in the morning, a transformation began. Taking a modern day alleyway, it would soon be transported back to the late 1800s.
Hauling in water, hay, fencing, crates, and even a perch, the alley quickly changed. For those walking by, it appeared as if they were stepping onto a Hollywood set.
Coming out to show the support of the city, Mayor Mike Seminary was on hand, while many others had made the way to this momentous photo shoot. It was truly becoming much more than just a photo; it was a community endeavor.
As the sun continued to rise in the sky, Balkowitsch knew there would be a great deal of guess work in creating the plates. Unlike modern photography, the light that Balkowitsch was going to capture was UV light, which made it exceptionally difficult to judge the proper exposure.
However, with a great deal of experience, and fellow photographers helping along the way, including the talented Mike LaLonde, Balkowitsch began making the calculations for the first plate of the day.
“The first plate is a guess,” Balkowitsch said. “Our only goal is to get a plate to the Heritage Center, which will be there 500 years from now.”
While Balkowitsch was busy behind the camera, Marek Dojs, director of the shoot, was occupied getting the actors into position. Yet, as with rest of the collaboration, each actor got a say as well, pushing them further into their roles.
“I want you to pick your characters,” Dojs said. “I’ll come in and adjust a little from there.”
With the scene set, the test plate was ready to be shot. For six seconds, all remained silent and still. As the cap was replaced on Balkowitsch’s camera, a collective sigh of relief could be observed.
Balkowitsch’s work was not complete though. With his apprentice, Greg Frank, helping through the development process, the first image was beginning to appear. Etched in silver on glass, the reaction was nearly unanimous.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” Balkowitsch yelled in excitement. “You guys are awesome. I don’t think I’ve been so excited.”
With the first plate history, work began on setting up additional shots. Adjustments were continually made, as Balkowitsch tried to zero in on the perfect exposure, while also adapting to the sun rising.
For the actors, each would show amazing dedication to the process. Quick to set up each scene, they would then pose as if statues, depicting scenes inspired by the city’s past.
Plate after plate, all continued to hit their marks. Building on the morning’s early success, the excitement continued to grow.
“Oh God you guys,” Balkowitsch exclaimed throughout the process. “You’re kidding me.”
Playing off each other, the energy began to bubble over, and it was clear that the shoot would have to continue as long as possible.
“We have to much energy,” Balkowitsch said. “We have to make two more plates before lunch.”
After numerous successful hits, the excitement just grew, building up a desire to put the shoot over the top. All had become heavily invested in the task, and it was going to be something amazing.
Yet it was Balkowitsch who continued to be more excited than anyone else. Even having seen the process a thousand times over, it was as if each plate was a little bit of magic, that was being seen for the first time. It pushed him to always work for just one more.
While the day was beginning to wind down, the excitement never did. It was if each plate was the first.
The collaboration had turned into much more than just a photo shoot. It had been a workshop, a gathering of artists, a unique piece of history.
With the last plate leaving the camera, it was met with a problem. Straw was kicked up, and landed on the wet glass. Remaining calm, Balkowitsch took it in stride, cleaning it off. It was one more success of the day.
It was then that the most tense full moments of the shoot was had. As a rush began to clean up the alley, to bring it back into the modern era, and leaving it as if no one had been there, Shane was busy placing the plates into the storage box, a box all others avoided, for fear of destroying the incredible work.
As all left the alley, they rejoined for one final talk at the Bismarck Downtown Artist Cooperative building, in the old Bismarck Tribune building; an ironic setting as the Tribune refused to cover the historic event.
Invited to help round out the day, Walter Bailey, of the Bismarck Historical Society, gave a short presentation on the history of Bismarck, and its notorious street.
Yet, even as Bailey wrapped up his talk, and all filed out of the BDAC building, there was still great news to be announced.
Working with Eileen Walsh, of the Dakota West Art Council, and having a piece of an alley donated by Beth Nodland and her husband John Morrison, Balkowitsch announced that a 10’ by 8’ print of the Murderer’s Gulch final plate would soon become an actual fixture of the city.
“Our effort is going to become art for members of the community to enjoy, and for me, there is no higher reward for our effort,” Balkowitsch said.
Nostalgic Glass Wet Plate Studio, Shane Balkowitsch
Soiled Doves –
Bonnie Balkowitsch (the Madame)
Jordan Rae Mulder
Andrea Anderson Haman
Amy ‘Sally Stitches’ Hendrickson
Kevin R Tengesdal
John Sullivan IV
Brandon L. Wetch
Drunk Lady –
Homeless Boy –
Corey Bloom and Eve
Stray Dog –
Banjo, owner Jessie Lanae Leben
Support Staff –
Mike LaLonde (Photography)
Jerry Anderson (Photography Consultant)
Dustin White (Writer)
Moira McNichols (Make-up)
DeAnne Billings (Seamstress and Wardrobe)
Nolan Johnson (Videographer)
Jessie Lanae Leben (Assistant and Animal Control)
Brad Slaubaugh (Photography) provided by Jack Glasser
Lori Sager (Costumes)
Jason Lueder (Set Carpenter)
Beth Nodland (Local Historian)
John Sullivan IV (Set Master)
Gregory Joel Frank (Wet Plate Apprentice)
Marshall Lipp (Photography)
SUPPORTERS / CONTACTS:
Bismarck Historical Society, Mike LaLonde and Walt Bailey
State Historical Society of ND, Emily Ergan & Lindsay Schott
Bismarck Downtown Artist Cooperative (BDAC), Paul Noot
Dakota West Art Council, Eileen Walsh
Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, Aaron Barth
City of Bismarck, Mike Seminary and Mike Berg
Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, David Borlaug
Photos by Dustin White