MATC photography department spotlighted in new art projects

Long-time instructor, student create artwork to help beautify downtown campus

Mark Feldmann,

August 12, 2022

MILWAUKEE – For millions of years, mankind has been moved to make images. Cave paintings. Charcoal drawings. Oil portraits. Long-exposure glass plate photography. Digital, computer-enhanced, highly detailed pictures.

John Glembin and Laila Scott are no exception. Separated by a generation, Glembin, a long-time Milwaukee Area Technical College photography instructor, and Scott, a current MATC photography student, share an enchantment and excitement to create distinctive, purposeful pictures.

“I used to paint and draw. But I found I couldn’t really articulate my ideas in those media,” said Scott, who grew up in Milwaukee and graduated from Milwaukee Public School’s School of Languages in 2020. “I realized I could do that with photography.”

This summer, students, faculty, employees and visitors to MATC’s Downtown Milwaukee Campus can view the artistic prowess and technical proficiency of the MATC photography department thanks to Glembin and Scott. Both were among 12 artists selected last December by the MATC Community Arts Committee to create works to beautify the campus at 700 West State Street. 

The works were installed in early August. This is the second year the committee has chosen campus beautification projects.

“This has been a fantastic idea,” said Glembin, an MATC alumnus who has taught at the college for 17 years. “This really allows our local artists to shine.”

“We have learned from the installation of our pieces the first year of the program just how impactful it can be to connect to the community we serve through art,” said Dr. Vicki J. Martin, MATC president. “The work inspires and leads to self-reflection and thought-provoking conversations on campus.”

The projects being completed by Glembin and Scott are sure to spark a myriad of thoughts and reflections on diversity, equality and beauty.

Projects feature portraits of current students

Glembin is documenting how diverse the photography program has become since he was a student at the college almost 40 years ago. Back then, he said, nearly all the students were White males.

For the campus artwork, Glembin used a large, box camera with a vintage lens to take formal portraits of 10 students that represent the demographic breakdown of the program today. He used an antiquated developing process called wet plate, which was the main photographic technique used between 1850 and 1890.

He printed the photos into portraits measuring 20 inches by 24 inches. The pictures will be as identical as possible except for the faces. “I want to show the diversity we enjoy today, but by using this historical process,” Glembin said.  

In the wet plate process, Glembin treats metal and glass plates with various chemicals to produce images; it’s a hands-on, labor-intensive process.

“It’s having the feel of the plates that I love,” he said. “Every plate gets treated differently, which leads to different imperfections and different images. Anything is possible.

“The inherent imperfections, aberrations and happy accidents of wet plate feed the intuitive process and the creative curiosity that brought me to photography in the first place,” he added.

Glembin grew up in the northern Wisconsin town of Eagle River. At 16, he had saved money to buy a stereo, but instead bought his first 35mm camera. He developed his skills by taking pictures at a local racetrack operated by his family. He sold his work to local newspapers, racing fans and drivers. 

“My passion grew and my future in photography was cemented,” he said.

After two years at MATC, he transferred to Ohio University and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 1985. He moved to New York to start a career as a professional photographer and served as an apprentice with Yousuf Karsh, one of the field’s greatest portrait photographers. Glembin parlayed that experience into working with Joel Baldwin, Nadav Kander, Annie Leibovitz and Toni Meneguzzo. 

In 1990 Glembin started his own commercial photo business, specializing in advertising and corporate communications. Everything changed on September 11, 2001. He lost many clients when two planes crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center.

“After that I felt a strong desire to return to my home and Midwestern roots,” he said. In 2005 he accepted a teaching position at MATC, fulfilling a lifelong desire to teach.

Scott also fell in love with photography as a teenager. And while she grew up in the age of digital, computerized equipment, Scott – like Glembin – revels in the tactile feeling of film, she said. 

“You can touch it, you can smell it, you can feel it,” she said. “With film, there’s nothing between you and the image you produced.”

For her campus art project, Scott took five portraits that emphasize shades of Black skin, types of Black hair and styles of Black fashion. The photos will be framed and exhibited in a row, with the heads progressively turning left to right, she said.

“I’d like viewers to see the beauty of the skin, the hair and the clothes and to feel warm tones,” Scott said. “With everything going on around us right now, I think we need to emphasize the warmth in the world.”

Scott has taken her portraits and plans to edit, print, frame and hang them this summer. “I’m excited to see everything together,” she said. “I really like each portrait, but I really want to see the whole body of the series.”

Scott plans to complete her associate degree at MATC in May 2023. She might transfer to a four-year college and get a bachelor’s degree, or start working in the commercial art field.

“MATC has given me a really good opportunity to get my first two years completed and to save some money,” Scott said. “I appreciate that we are learning the technical side of photography and not just the creative side of it. This has been really valuable for me.”

Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs; and transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.