John Milios didn’t start out wanting to be a photographer. For sixteen years, he was a professional martial arts fighter and idolized Bruce Lee. For fans, Lee is much more than a movie star–he’s closer to a philosopher-super hero. For martial arts, Windsor-born Milios got the opportunity to travel around Asia. He lugged his father’s Canon to Japan, China, and South Korea, and, while not competing, took pictures of the landscapes, the architecture, and the people he encountered.
“I got to the point where I was getting a little bit older,” he explains. “I had pretty much done everything I’d wanted to do in the martial arts world, and it was time for me to transition into something else. My knees started feeling it, my back was feeling it, and I wanted to keep my brain cells intact.”
When he was younger yet another career Milios was interested in was music, so once he moved to the States (he’s lived in New York and Los Angeles) he began photographing musicians. Quickly he discovered it didn’t matter if your subject was a singer, a rock guitarist, a fashion model, or a bride. The process was the same.
“I guess my approach is finding the zone the person is in…and to allow the elements to come together. Sometimes people have this preconceived notion when they go into a photo shoot as to how it’s going to be or how it’s going to unfold. I don’t like to do that. I like to have a concept in mind, but also leave room for external elements to intervene and create magic.”
A perfect example is a photo shoot he did with a songstress out in the desert of Palm Springs.
“It was 110 degrees that day,” he says. “Her makeup was melting. She was about to faint from the heat. And she’s like, ‘John, I’m done. Can we quit?’” He had got some good pictures but asked the singer to hold on for fifteen more minutes. He was waiting for that unpredictable magic moment you can’t plan for, but you know when see it. He heard a train coming in the distance. He rushed his subject over to the tracks. With only a few minutes to set up, he told her to not move. “I’m going to get one chance at this!” he said. It all came together and he captured an arresting image of rushing momentum and determined solemnity.
Milios picked up his skills on the job, thrown into the deep end of event photography. “Weddings are like war photography,” he jokes. “You have a huge amount of pressure. You can’t miss the kiss. You can’t miss the ring. You got to get the mom crying and the dad hugging the bride…Your lighting’s changing–you’re in the church, you’re outside the church, you’re in the sun, you’re out of the sun. There are so many different variables. You can really tell the amateur from the professional.”
Through his combination of fashion, music, and corporate event photography, Milios has captured such disparate figures as Jon Bon Jovi, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton. “He’s an exceptional man,” he says of the former president. But celebrity does not cow him. Shooting different kinds of people involves the same process because “we all have our little quirks, no matter who you are. And sometimes those are the things that make you truly beautiful.”
Milios’s company Milios Couture is growing both in the US and here (he made Toronto connections after the Greek Film and Foto Week), but I wonder what role professional photographers will play in the future when everyone has cameras not only in their phones, but on their glasses.
“I think now it’s actually better for artists like myself because it pushes me to be more creative. It pushes me to bring the bar up to another level. It pushes me to exceed what has already been done.”
Rather, he thinks the ubiquity of cameras will lead to a brighter future.
“Look at all the changes in the world that’s happened because of photography. Now everyone has access to what’s happening in the rest of the world. People are awakening because of that.”
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.