A photographic history

LASM displays BR collection of cameras

As president and founder of Digital FX, Greg Milneck uses the latest cameras and projection equipment. His production company makes documentaries, television commercials and feature films and does special effects and animation for television,

But interspersed among his state-of-the-art equipment in storage, on shelves and in every nook and cranny in his comtemporary-syle headquarters are hundreds of vintage cameras — the product of decades of collecting.

Milneck was born in California. His father was a photographer who worked mostly in the entertainment business. “I grew up in his darkroom,” Milneck said. “My sister and I were props in his photography.”

Milneck was 9 when his father gave him his first camera. “I was always fascinated with cameras,” he said. “I was fascinated with the actual mechanics of the camera.”

The family moved to Baton Rouge when Milneck was 15. As a student at Baton Rouge High School, Milneck often crossed the street to browse in Southern Camera. He and owner John Lowry became fast friends.

“I ended up working there several years,” Milneck said. “John Lowry was a father figure to me.”

Lowry sold and serviced new cameras, but he also took old cameras in trade. In the early 1980s, the hottest seller was the brand new Canon AE-1, a single-lens reflex, or SLR camera. “It was huge,” Milneck said. “They sold as fast as they could get them in the store.”

Customers brought in their old cameras as trade-in for the new Canons. “I was shocked that dozens of people were coming in with their Leicas and trading them in for this Canon,” Milneck said.

Leica cameras, which were made in Germany, were particularly fine. “Leica invented 35mm photography,” Milneck said.

Milneck asked Lowry if he could buy one of the Leica trade-in cameras. “He sold it to me,” Milneck said. “It was the first camera in my collection.”

For the rest of the time Milneck worked at Southern Camera, he saved every dollar he made to buy used cameras. “John started taking me to camera shows,” he said. “I was blown away by the whole society that existed of camera collectors.”

While working at Southern Camera, Milneck saw his first Kodak Petite, a camera that was the exact opposite of the Leica. “It was extremely basic, but very colorful,” Milneck said. “Basically it was point and shoot.”

The Petite was one of several models produced by Kodak from about 1928 to the mid-1930s. They were inexpensive but very stylish cameras. Some came in cases fitted with matching compacts and lipsticks.

A 1928 ad for the Kodak Vanity, which came in five different colors, described it as, “Newest of the Smart Gifts . . . for the Girl Graduate, the Bride, the Bridesmaid, the Birthday . . . distinguished dainty feminine . . . (join) Park Avenue debutantes in acclaiming these gloriously colorful Kodaks, the loveliest gift creations seen in years.”

Because the “colorful Kodaks” were only made for a short time, they are extremely difficult to find. “They were very fragile,” Milneck said. “Probably most were broken and thrown out.” They soon became part of Milneck’s collection.

Over several decades of searching, Milneck has acquired several hundred of the cameras. A number are on display at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum through April 14 in an exhibit, “Gloriously Colorful Kodaks: Selections from the Greg Milneck Collection.”

In the early 1980s, Milneck began working as a freelance photographer. He covered SEC football for ESPN. “Basically I worked only half the year,” he said. “I started my business in my off-season roughly in 1985.”

Collecting vintage movie cameras was a natural progression for Milneck. “I really focus more on the movie camera lately because that’s my industry,” he said.

Milneck’s company, Digital FX, creates television ads and does production elements for documentaries including many for the National Geographic and Discovery channels. He has worked on television series including “Mega Movers” and “The World’s Deadliest Animals.”

“All of the animation for these series, we created right here in Baton Rouge,” he said.

Milneck’s vintage movie cameras include the first model home movie camera, the Butcher Empire; the first model of the 16mm home movie camera; and a gyro mount camera typical of those used for World War I footage.

He also has the first model of a movie projector made by the Thomas Edison Co.

As for the number of cameras Milneck has collected over the years: “Thousands,” he said.