MAPLETON, N.D. — From the moment that wispy outline of her friend’s face emerged on the glass, Kary Janousek was hooked.
It was the fall of 2019 and Janousek had just taken her very first ambrotype of her best friend, Jill, on the rooftop of her Fargo apartment building. Ambrotype, also called collodion wet-plate process, is one of the oldest types of photography, yet can produce an image in 15 minutes: the Polaroid of its time.
Every minute counts with this persnickety method, so after taking the shot, Janousek dashed down to her closet-turned-darkroom to develop the negative. “I had buckets of water so, when I had to rinse, I had to squat down,” she recalls. “I had bicycle lights for the red lights in the darkroom. It was crazy.”
Crazy, but successful. Ambrotypes can be spoiled by so many things — lack of ultraviolet light, models who don’t sit perfectly still, wet plates drying out — that most first-time shooters won’t capture an image.
But Janousek did. And as her friend’s familiar face emerged in the developer, Janousek knew she’d found her calling.
Janousek is now one of only a handful of photographers who operate collodion wet-plate studios in North Dakota. She is the newest of the lot and the only female.
Her business, High Hat Portraiture, is based out of a classroom-turned-studio in an old schoolhouse in Mapleton, N.D., just west of Fargo.
In a way, it’s perfect: An old schoolhouse for an old-school type of photography.
And it’s a perfect fit for Janousek's artistic spirit. Previously from Cleveland, Ohio, she says she was watching classic movies and reading “Jane Eyre,” when all her contemporaries were listening to Britney Spears.
Janousek would spend years exploring different artistic pursuits. She sketched, trained to sing opera and took night classes on creative-writing. After moving to Fargo in 2004, where she met her future husband, John Janousek, she started a successful business restoring and selling vintage and antique hats.
But ambrotype, aka wet-plate collodion process, combined everything she loved: art, antiques, history, fashion — and just enough darkroom magic and luck to keep things interesting.
From model to photographer
As Janousek trips lightly down the steps of the old Mapleton school to greet her visitor, she makes a striking first impression: tall, willowy, dressed all in black and with a sweep of red hair colored in varying hues of scarlet. With her high cheekbones and ivory skin, it’s easy to see why she is sometimes recruited by her fellow ambrotypists to model.
Ironically, it was a session in front of the camera that moved Janousek to the spot where she really wanted to be: behind the camera, taking portraits of others.
About two years ago, Janousek hired Shane Balkowitsch to take ambrotypes of her modeling her antique hats. She wore a 1700s-style gown and piled her hair in an elaborate Marie Antoinette coif to show off the millinery.
Balkowitsch, a Bismarck artist who is well-known for his wet-plate photography, asked Janousek to try a few poses without a hat. A standout image showed Janousek in repose, with eyes closed and antique bottle grasped in her pale hands. The bottle was meant to signify some dangerous potion, such as laudanum, but it was actually a bottle of collodion — the key mixture in Balkowitsch’s Victorian-era photography.
The photo would prove so prophetic that Janousek still displays it in her studio.
As Janousek watched the ghostly images emerge in Balkowitsch’s darkroom, she knew one thing: She wanted to try it. “I knew it was almost impossible for me to do (wet-plate photography) with my circumstances but as soon as I watched him do it, I was just like, ‘I’m doing this. I don’t want to do the posing; I want to do the photography.’”
Janousek read all she could about the art and kept in contact with Balkowitsch. “Thankfully Shane and I both hit it off as friends. He was very helpful letting me shadow him during the summer while he made plates,” she says. “He always helps me troubleshoot; he’s very generous that way.”
First ambrotypist died penniless
Janousek was fortunate to rent studio space in the old Mapleton school, which now serves as antique storage for a local businessman who holds estate sales.
As she passes old classrooms filled with old globes, '60s dinette sets and ornate mirrors, she ducks into her tiny darkroom in a former janitorial closet. She demonstrates the first portion of the wet-plate process: coating a piece of glass or metal with a syrupy concoction called collodion, which acts as a film base. The coated plate is then submerged in a silver-nitrate bath to make it light sensitive, then slid into a light-blocking plate holder so it can be safely transported upstairs to be inserted into the camera.
Once the plate is placed inside the camera, she’ll remove the front lens cap as long as is needed to capture the image. The plate is then removed and rushed back down to the darkroom, where it is developed and treated to help seal the plate. This all needs to be done within a 15-minute window, before the plate can dry out.
Despite its idiosyncrasies, ambrotype was far superior to the earliest forms of photography, like daguerreotype. The process was first invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer, an Englishman who generously shared the superior technology without bothering to patent it. Archer’s combination of good-heartedness and bad business-sense may be why he died penniless six years later, after introducing the world to a game-changing photographic technique that was 20 times faster than previous methods and produced crisp, detailed negatives.
Ambrotype would make way for newer technology throughout the 19th century, but remained a popular technology for traveling photographers through the 1920s.
Old tech gains new fans
In recent years, the wet-plate process has enjoyed a small renaissance, possibly as a backlash against the highly automated nature of digital photography.
"I love digital photography and what people can do with it, but you take a selfie and you can use how many filters,” Janousek says. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not reality. You lose a sense of self.”
Wet-plate photographers pine for the hands-on skill and darkroom work required for earlier photographic methods. They like it so much that they’re willing to overlook the time it takes to learn, along with the difficulty factor, unpredictable results and expensive equipment and chemicals.
Perhaps that’s why there are fewer than 1,000 ambrotypists worldwide.
Janousek believes people are turning to old-school photography for the same reason they’re baking bread or learning to crochet. “I think people are sitting at home, and they’re looking toward something that is creative. They’re tired of being on the internet.”
She also believes the new ambrotypist loves the concepts of capturing moments of people’s lives while showing them in a natural, non-Photoshopped state. “When you see yourself in a wet plate, that’s who you really are,” she says. “I can’t alter that wrinkle. For some people, it’s kind of a wake-up call and they feel negative about it. But most people feel like, ‘That’s who I really am.’ When you think about it, why is it bad to be who you are?”
The world's hardest selfie
Janousek’s top-floor studio is flooded with morning light from the bank of 9-foot-tall windows lining the east wall. Positioned in the center of the room, her Burke and James Rembrandt Portrait Camera is early 20th century and in remarkably good shape — with red, leather bellows, a mahogany body and a Carl Zeiss Tessar portrait lens.
The studio contains reminders of its past life: White boards, still displaying a teacher’s smiley faces, vocabulary words and neatly written notes of instruction and encouragement to her students, line the walls. “I kept all the classroom stuff, because it’s so cute,” Janousek says.
The whiteboard's eraser trays display many of Janousek's ambrotypes. Many ambrotypists like to print their photos on tintype; Janousek prints hers on black stained glass, which she cuts herself.
There are pictures of rough-faced, bearded men, solemn young ladies dressed as Shakespeare's "Ophelia" and — once, just once — two serenely “sleeping” little girls, dressed in the fussy dresses and white tights of another era. (Janousek says children squirm too much for the poky shutter speed of antique cameras, but she made an exception for these two young ladies, and the result is convincingly Victorian.)
The images have a gothic quality, helped along by antique props and the pre-Raphaelite flowing hair and solemn faces of her models. Janousek explains why 19th-century photo subjects seem stricken with melancholia. It’s the elusive nature of the human smile. As the earliest cameras needed total stillness and longer exposures, it was too difficult to keep a motionless smile plastered on your face for an extended period of time, so people relied on their resting grump faces.
The primitive equipment makes it extremely difficult to take a selfie. Even so, Janousek somehow managed to take not just one, but three eerie images representing the “past,” “present and “future” amid a pandemic. Dressed in early 1900s evening wear with her hair piled into a Gibson girl pompadour, the “past” image shows her looking over her shoulder while holding a human skull. “Present” shows her staring straight ahead while wearing an antique gas mask. In “future,” she holds a lantern and gazes off at what lies ahead.
To achieve this triptych, Janousek had to prepare the scene and position the camera beforehand, position a mirror in front of the camera tripod, retreat to the darkroom in full costume to prepare the plates, load the plates into a camera, pose while instructing husband John to remove the lens cap, then rush back to the darkroom to develop the images.
“Each plate was done a separate day,” she says. “I think it took six tries total to get the focus and image I wanted for the entire triptych.”
Learn more about Janousek’s photography at karyboberry.wixsite.com/website-1.