Old School-New School photography chat with local photographer John Milleker Jr.

23 photos, 1 video

In today’s technology-laden society, almost everyone has a camera on them at all times. However, many have claimed that the abundant snapping of pictures with a cell phone has belittled thoughtfully composed photography in a similar way that text messages and emails have bastardized grammatically correct, handwritten letters.

Amongst the quiet homes of Glen Burnie, Maryland lives a mustachioed gentleman working to bring class and artistry back to photography. With techniques ranging from Civil War era Wet Plate Collodion to the latest innovations in the digital realm, John Milleker Jr. always approaches a job with an eye for composition no matter the medium.

In the interview and video below, John talks about his hefty photographic arsenal and the lengths he’s taken to protect the more ‘analogue’ weapons he occasionally wields.

Lets start with you giving our readers a one sentence summary on your view of photography in 2012.

JOHN MILLEKER JR.: How about two words? “Just shoot.” The whole film is better, digital is better, this camera system over this one. Just shoot. The camera is just a light proof box with a hole in it anyway, and at this point they all make great photos in the right hands. But that’s the key, I’ve seen pros make fantastic photos with cameras costing a few dollars – and I’ve seen newcomers struggle with the best, most expensive systems. Anyone can do it, but it takes lots of learning and practice.

Are you originally from the Baltimore area? If not, what brought you here to pursue your photography career?

JMJ: Yes, more specifically Anne Arundel County. I love Maryland because it’s just in the middle of some of the greatest history and scenics in the country and all close enough to get to with a simple day or weekend trip. I couldn’t ask for a better home base for all of my photographic passions.

How old were you when you received your first camera? What kind was it? If it used film, what was your first digital camera and when did you get it?

JMJ: As far as I can remember, my first camera was a baby blue Kodak 110. Elementary or middle school, I really don’t know. It was one of those snapshot cameras and I used it as such. During my highschool years I played with 35mm point and shoot film systems before going with a more professional 35mm SLR film camera. It was a used Minolta SLR and I seem to remember it having a shutter problem. Or maybe a user problem. Either way I stopped using it and went on to different interests.

My first ‘real’ digital camera was an Olympus c2000. Still a point and shoot but I was able to get some nice stuff out of it but I realized digital wasn’t ‘there’ yet and dipped back into film with a new Minolta SLR outfit. That Minolta helped me take photography much more seriously and that’s really where I figured out this is what I wanted to do. I never wanted to do my own darkroom work but photography classes, workshops and books wore me down. I tried it and loved it. Eventually I started back into digital about ten years ago and have been keeping up on digital camera technology since, even with one foot still back in the 19th century.

John Milleker Jr.: "The Wet Plate Collodion process was invented in the late 1840’s by Frederick Scott Archer and then introduced in the early 1850’s. Compared to the previous process, the Daguerreotype, wet plate was a much easier and safer process. You also couldn’t make prints or copies of Daguerreotypes like you could with an Ambrotype, which is Wet Plate Collodion on glass."

What are the film and plate processes you’ve mastered for your personal work and which ones have you introduced to your clients?

JMJ: I can’t consider myself a master in any process because I’m always learning and experimenting – but I feel I am quite proficient in many of them. From Wet Plate Collodion all the way up to current film stocks and developers. There’s probably a good dozen major alternative processes in the middle, and every one of them has a unique look. With digital, most people look at a scene, shoot it and then decide what to do with it when you bring it up on the computer. Film is different. It makes you look, think, take a breath and visualize your final product all before hitting the shutter button. There’s no Photoshop and film is expensive; it really makes you get everything right in camera.

For clients, sometimes the extra cost of film isn’t practical to cover an event. Not everyone is looking for ‘fine art.’ Most of our event and portraiture images are made using digital.

Usually our analog work is generated by someone who likes a piece we’ve done; they love the look of one of the alternative processes or is just excited to be a part of a process they’ve never seen. When we can, we love to show off the processes and help clients get involved. This is especially easy with wet plate collodion where everything goes from start to finish within about 10 minutes.

During the unavoidable surge in digital photography over the past 10 years, what is it that kept you working in the non-digital arena?

JMJ: Soul. Film has soul. Depending on the choices of film, developer and paper types you have available, you have such a large number of possibilities for nudging your print to a certain look along the way.

That’s not even bringing alternative processes into the mix. While we strive for perfection with everything we release, there’s so much more that’s hands-on when it comes to analog photography. Without being too predictable, it’s ‘made with love.’ You can’t help but have a nurturing connection with a print you’ve taken from film to camera to negative to print and the dozens of steps in between.

Wet Plate Collodion, Chairs

When the very last roll of Kodachrome slide film was processed in July of 2010, it sent a signal to many that film photography was officially being relegated to hobby status, and an endangered one at that. What kinds of steps have you taken to prolong this from happening to any of your favorite non-digital techniques?

JMJ: There’s no doubt that film is hurting. We’ll never see film bounce back to the levels it was, but we are seeing a surge in popularity. Still, production runs are getting smaller and prices are going up. Not to mention our favorite film manufacturers are discontinuing specialty emulsions of film. It’s hard to keep our chin up with that news, but we’re going to ride the wave as long as possible. We support those who still make film and developing chemicals but we’ve also taken steps to make sure we’re not left out in the cold with yet another discontinued product. Besides film, everything we use can and has been made from chemicals obtained from any good scientific chemical supply house.

There’s no shortage of analog photography lovers to share information online and locally. There is a group that meets in Baltimore called ‘Film in Baltimore.’

We also teach classes and private tutor sessions in many aspects of analog photography. We’ve given demonstrations of the process in our own darkroom and on the road, most recently in Harpers Ferry. I can’t remember the last time we’ve given a wet plate demonstration or a print enlarging demonstration that didn’t get a ‘wow’ from the public when the plate cleared or the print darkened in the developing tray.

Failing that, and everything disappears, we have over 20,000 feet of film in cold storage. I’m currently working on pouring my own gelatin silver negatives (just like real film). Add to that wet plate and ways to make light sensitive paper from scratch and I think the world will have plenty of options to feed their film cameras for a long time.


What are your thoughts on a new generation growing up with camera phones and the immediate gratification of sharing photos via popular social networks like Facebook and Instagram?

JMJ: At first I was resistant. I still don’t use Instagram but I understand the appeal. I have to laugh at some of these filters and I wonder if anyone under 20 even knows what those looks are even based on. If only half of the people faking a cross processed film look or a Sepia toned print tried the real process that inspired those looks, I think we’d have a lot more film shooters.

I appreciate the social network movement of sharing photos. And we use it too – we share client proofing galleries on my website and share current work on Flickr and Facebook. Now I can’t remember the last time we worked for someone who didn’t have the ability to view images online. It used to require printing out a proofing book or digitally projecting images in person.

For far too long digital shooters would shoot and let those photographs sit on the memory card, CD-R or on a single hard drive. Through upgrades, errors and failures I know a lot of photographs were lost. Facebook and Instagram (and many more places) are letting people shoot, upload and share. It’s the equivalent of the shoebox full of photos and I love it. In the age where we’re seeing more of our family on Facebook than in real life, it’s as important as ever to share photos.

What’s your go-to digital camera for on-the-go shots?

JMJ: When we’re not rocking the 1850’s processes and cameras, we pride ourselves on being current in the realm of digital photography as well. Depending on if we’re shooting sports and need zoom and a fast buffer, we’ll run with a Canon 50D cropped sensor body. For events like weddings or corporate events, the Canon 5D MKii full frame sensor is the primary body.

One of the newest additions to your Flickr photostream is a wet plate collodion image of Jim Getty as President Lincoln in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia for the 150th anniversary reenactment of the original visit. How close to the timeframe of the reenactment was that technique developed?

Lincoln Ambrotype

JMJ: Spot on actually, Lincoln’s visit was in 1862. The Wet Plate Collodion process was invented in the late 1840’s by Frederick Scott Archer and then introduced in the early 1850’s. Compared to the previous process, the Daguerreotype, wet plate was a much easier and safer process. You also couldn’t make prints or copies of Daguerreotypes like you could with an Ambrotype, which is Wet Plate Collodion on glass. It was widely used through the Civil War and up until about the 1880’s, and even then wet plate stuck around until the early 1900’s as a nostalgic process at vacation destinations. Sort of like our ‘Old Time Photos’ of today.

I recently re-watched the movie “Pecker” by Baltimore director John Waters. The way it poked fun of how the New York art scene embraced the grunge of Baltimore through Pecker’s ‘candid’ photography led me to my next question: Do you think there are any similarities between high art going grunge in the 90’s and photography trending away from digital today? A sort of “hipsterization,” if you will?

JMJ: Whatever the reason, “hipserization” or not, I’m glad new people are shooting film. It gives the artist a truly randomized, chemical way of creating a style. With computers, nothing is ever truly random. As for grunge, I can relate – there are some alternative processes that intentionally destroy the negative or print. For me, it depends on the subject and what I want the viewer to feel when they’re looking at that print.

Are you working on any projects that we should keep on our radar?

JMJ: I’m working with the dry plate collodion, which was the first step from wet plate collodion. Dry plate paved the way for film as we know it today. Instead of a process that was in danger of being destroyed by drying out, dry plates could be coated and exposed a month later and developed a month after that. While early plates were still glass, you weren’t carrying around the chemicals to coat plates in the field and a dark, light-proof box to do it in.

We’re always finding new ways to make photos using new materials or chemicals.

For more information on John Milleker Jr., check out his weblog, his Flickr photostream and on Twitter @JohnMilleker.