written by Robert Molenda

His retail photography shop was in at least three locations during his life.  Two of these buildings are standing today.  He worked long hours at his trade, yet found time to copy the photos of others and make that part of the archival collection of historical photos of Stillwater.  He was born in 1878 and photography and its technology were already part of history.  While he took photos of many contemporary scenes, he made an offer to anyone who had a photo from an earlier time in Stillwater’s history.  The offer was to make two copies of any photo of Stillwater and give one to the person who brought the original photo to his attention.  Runk had people provide dates and subject matter on the photos and he recorded that information on the back of each photograph.  As a result of this very popular offer, Stillwater, Minnesota and the Nation have this rich collection that goes back to the earliest days of the Minnesota Territory, the city of Stillwater, the lumber drives, the heavy industry activity, the wars and the tourism and recreational period. This collection was first given to the Stillwater Public Library in 1937 and 1938.  Mr. Runk kept working on this collection after that time and when he died in 1964 at age 86, he left the remainder of the collection to the Stillwater Public Library. 

He used a variety of equipment and lenses to make copies of photos.  His work features a very fine-grained image that happens to be very suitable for high-resolution digital images that are common in 2016.  Much of his work was done on glass slides and some prints were even tinted.  The processes he used were very tedious and exacting.   

John Runk never drove an automobile.  Although he is viewed in many photos with many companions, he never married.   He was an outdoorsman and liked to hunt, trap and fish.  Mr. Runk was also known to use an automatic shutter that allowed him to run to the scene and appear in some of the photos that he originated.  Runk was probably one of the first to make “selfies”, using his portrait camera.  He was often seen around Stillwater carrying his camera, which was bulky and heavy and provided many of the photographs that we all enjoy today.  He was a very fair businessman and always offered a “Square Deal”, which was his motto. 

His work is very much alive today.  It is often used in news stories and is heavily researched in the Stillwater Public Library.  If you visit the city, not only can you view his photos and see some of the photos that he reproduced for others, but you can touch and feel the locations where he worked at his profession.

John Runk would have been very much at home with digital photography if he were alive today.  He probably had no idea how much his gift would be easily digitized and reproduced in mobile devices, computers and archival digital files.  He had a passion for archival storage of his photographs because he made steel/asbestos cases for all the photos that are part of his collection.  Runk also had no desire to restrict the use of his collection to the general public.  It was his gift to all of us.  Thank you, Mr. Runk, for your wonderful gift.   


Brent Peterson; Stillwater Current; June 3, 2015

Tim Harlow; Star Tribune; August 28, 2010; Photographer Captured Life in Stillwater

Mary Divine; Pioneer Press;; May 3, 2008 , updated November 13, 2015; Serving History Through a Lens