What is your official title?
I’m not sure. Being self-employed, I do everything and when I can, nothing. No real title. My business is John Lacko Photography; very imaginative, I know.
What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?
My average day involves working with images, completing work, researching my photos or taking care of business on the computer. All of my photography is done on location; I don’t have a studio. Since I am a location photographer, I load a lot of photo gear into my Honda Pilot, and head out.
Can you tell us about your background/passion?
I’m a Kalamazoo guy, my mom still lives in the house that I grew up in on Westnedge Hill. I graduated from Norrix. Got started in photography by being one of the track photographers at Martin Dragway. I was an Air Force photojournalist for four years in California. I graduated from Western with both a Bachelor and Master’s degree. My Master’s is in Instructional Technology. I worked at Cleveland State University as an Assistant Director for Instructional Support Services, which involved all of the Audio Visual functions including TV. Then, I left CSU to join a group that was going to build a chain of conference centers across the country. One was built, then internal problems developed among the investors.
From there Nancy and I came back to Kalamazoo, and I joined the family business, which had nothing to do with photography. One day in 1992, my father told me that he wanted to retire, and I said ‘that’s great, me too!’ So, we closed the business, and I started to pursue my photography full time. I had been judging the Gazette Snapshot Competition for a couple of years. So one day the Gazette Photo Editor said, ‘hey, why don’t you shoot for us occasionally? For almost 20 years, I was an independent contractor and freelance photographer for the Gazette. That involved photographing the widest possible range of subjects and events on almost a daily basis. I was also lucky enough to find other clients. Then the Gazette committed suicide; luckily I had my other great clients, but I do miss the variety of work that I did with the Gazette.
I have my regular photography business, but I also teach photography. I’ve taught at the KIA, at Kalamazoo College, at Western, but now I teach at Norman’s. I like to do specific classes that are short and very concentrated with a set goal. I’m finishing up the Introduction to Digital Photography class for the third time since we’ve been back from our latest trip to California in late January, so that class is pretty popular. Soon I will be doing an intermediate level class to help photographers develop their own photographic approach. I teach a travel photography class, and what I call “Paparazzi Parents”, which is for people who want to shoot better pictures of their kids or grandkids. I also teach automotive photography out at the Gilmore Car Museum. I’m going to do a new one – Flower, Garden and Landscape Photography. Also do sports photography. I try to develop and teach short and concise photo classes for what people are interested in. I ask the guys at Norman’s about what their customers want to know about; since those are the subjects that people are interested in. People invest a lot of money in their cameras. Just because you invest a lot of money into a camera that alone doesn’t make you a photographer; it makes you a camera owner. That’s why I develop and teach these classes, to help people become better photographers and enjoy their photography more. It’s very rewarding helping people get the most out of their cameras.
Do you have a specialty? What would people call on you for to photograph?
I’m what used to be known as an editorial photographer. I shoot people on location doing things for publication. I’m not a commercial photographer who works in a studio; there are plenty of good photographers who do that here in Kalamazoo. Instead, I like working with people. My specialties include event and performance photography I am the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra photographer and have been shooting them for over 20 years. I’ve really enjoyed that. Leta Snow, who founded the KSO was my piano teacher when I was a kid, so by photographing for the orchestra I feel that I am repaying her not being one of her more talented pupils.
I shoot motor sports, too. I shoot primarily vintage motor sports. I enjoy having another chance to photograph the racing cars that I shot 40+ years ago. Nancy and I travel around the Midwest to photograph for a vintage motor sports magazine. Shooting racing allows me to enjoy two major interests – automobiles and photography.
What is your favorite thing to shoot?
The grandkids, as all grandparents would say! Nancy and I have a step-granddaughter who is married and lives outside of London, and then we have four grandkids in California. All five are my favorite subjects. I like to photograph many subjects, but I do love shooting cars. I like bird photography as well. I like photographing while we travel. We drive to California, so we have a lot of fun driving different sections of Route 66; each year we pick a different area to explore the Southwest. We’ve been to Monument Valley, Palo Duro, Arches, Zion, Slot Canyons, and many other great photo locations. There’s still more to shoot.
Documentary photography interests me. It seems that not much photography is done now just to record how we live. I’ve done four documentary projects for the Kalamazoo Public Museum. In 1984, Kalamazoo was going to celebrate 100 years of being a city, as I recall. At the time, the big thing was ‘A Day in the Life’ where a bunch of really well known photographers would descend upon Japan, or Australia, and shoot wherever they were, then put the best of the photos in a book about what happened that one day. It occurred to me that we should do that here in Kalamazoo, but what day do you pick? There are so many things going on here, so it was decided shoot all summer. I approached Pat Norris at the KVPM about the idea and it turned out he was interested in documentary photography as well. So we came up with shooting scripts, and assigned photographers specific subjects. We started out with 50-some volunteer photographers, and about 30 of them turned in work. We got some funding and bought a big archival storage unit, and now all of those images are in the collection of the Kalamazoo Valley Public Museum where they will be accessible for years to come. We did it again in 1990, 2000 with film and prints. In 2011, it was a digital project. in 50 or 100 years people can look back and see what life in Kalamazoo was like thanks to lots of good local photographers. We’ll see in 2020 if we do it again and add to what we’ve started.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?
I volunteer at the Gilmore Car Museum; I’m on the education committee. As you may know, it’s a fabulous museum, one of the top three automotive museums in the country. I work primarily with kids, and we are looking to expand the impact of that museum on kids. We want to stimulate their interest in science and mathematics through the automobile. That’s one of the things that really excites me now is to get kids away from texting and keyboards and show them that they can get their hands dirty and accomplish something, while learning about the principles of science in the process. I get a lot of satisfaction from volunteering there.
I’m also working to better organize my photographs for easier access; that’s a huge ongoing project.
How would you describe photography in Kalamazoo?
Kalamazoo is a great photography town; there are some very good and talented photographers here. I think most of this is because of two guys – Norm Carver and Dave Curl. Norm’s still active, he has a gallery on the Mall, and Dave is a retired professor from Western. Between them, they taught an advanced photography class at the KIA for years. Many of us Kalamazoo photographers took those classes from these two guys. They had a lot to do with the general level of really excellent photography in Kalamazoo. We used to have an annual week-long workshop when the KIA would bring in nationally known photographers like Ernst Haas, Gary Winogrand, David Vestal and others to work with local photographers.
What do you love most about Kalamazoo?
I think that the influence of the Universities, combined with our Kalamazoo businesses that has attracted such a wonderful mix of people is what keeps Kalamazoo vital. It’s an interesting place for a town to begin with. The terrain is interesting with Kalamazoo situated in this valley with all of the hills around it. No matter who you talk to and what their interests are, almost everyone loves being a resident of Kalamazoo. There’s kind of this shared identity; we may not agree on everything, but I think the citizens of Kalamazoo would agree that it’s a great place to live and do what they can to keep it that way.
What do you think can be improved about Kalamazoo?
I think we need a newspaper. A newspaper that concentrates on our community; we don’t care about news from Flint or Grand Rapids, we want to learn about what’s going on in Kalamazoo.
I think a local paper would keep us informed about what’s going on in town, who’s doing what, and what continues to make Kalamazoo great. There are so many other forms of communication, but they’re not of common or general interest. Social media isn’t really general. So how do you keep up with everything going on in Kalamazoo? Without a local newspaper that concentrates our community, it’s almost impossible.
What have you been jammin’ to recently?
Well, right now it’s Dwight Yokum. I love Dwight Yokum and Neil Young. I also love the classics, like Frank Sinatra. I really like all kinds of music; I like polkas, I love opera, but I can’t do the barbershop. I’ve tried, and I just can’t do it.
How do you take your coffee?…or do you?
Black from my Keurig with a little cream.
Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?
Asylum Lake. I think it’s a splendid place to go for a walk; it’s really accessible. If you look at an aerial view, you might be surprised to find that it’s less than a quarter mile from Stadium Drive. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful, and you’ll hardly see anybody. I used to go fishing there with my son.
When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an Automotive Engineer for Corvette.
Who would play you in a movie?
Either Nicholas Cage or Bruce Dern.
What is your favorite type of car?
‘66 Mustang, which is parked in my garage. It’s Guardsman blue. It’s a unique car. It’s a fastback, and it’s equipped with the high performance package. It’s pretty loud, but we drive Honda’s otherwise, so it’s great to get into that thing and fire it up. It’s got a very interesting history, so I feel very lucky to be the current caretaker of the car.
Where can we find your photography?
I just did Art Hop in March for the Symphony. I do it maybe once every other year – I’ve done t birds, motor sports, travel and other subjects in the past. Watching the Kalamazoo Facebook pages, I noticed that there was a lot of buzz about the rock concerts in the 90’s, which were a lot of the concerts that I photographed for the Gazette. So I suggested to the KSO that I would exhibit “Kalamazoo Rock Concerts of the 90’s” for the March Art Hop and they said ‘sure!’ I pulled all of the old stuff out and made big prints, and projected about 80 images as well.
I sell a whole series of Kalamazoo photo magnets at the Nature Connection. I sell a lot of magnets of my automotive stuff at the Gilmore Car Museum. The magnets available at the Nature Connection are refrigerator or office magnets and the magnets available at the GCM are tool box or office magnets.
If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?
I would say to really concentrate on making a living at what you love to do. Took me awhile to learn that, but I think that is critical. If you can figure out a way to make a living out of what you love, then you won’t work again in your life.