Malibu Artist Rises From the Ashes

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Photographer Billy Blake poses by one of his works at his Fifth Street apartment in Santa Monica.

In 2008, Malibu artist and photographer Billy Blake woke early in the morning to find his house on fire. As he hurried out the door with his girlfriend and his dog, he grabbed a small box of discs at the entryway as the only belonging saved from the conflagration. Forty years of his work went up in smoke that night, along with his uninsured house.

It was hard to comeback from that blow. But, spurred on by the Buddhist philosophies of his girlfriend, Peggy Semtob, Blake started to paint and shoot again. Now, he is looking to release a limited edition, art print book of his new work, achieved through a crowd-funding campaign and featuring re-creations of his pre-digital images that are as strongly fixed in his mind as they were back when they were developed from negatives.

“Sometimes, it seemed there was just a futility to existence,” Blake said. “After the fire, I realized how much I had lost. All my negatives, all my prints. Fortunately, I had started digitizing my work and that one box of discs was all I had left. But eventually, I got myself back together and thought, ‘What if I re-created the images I really remember well.’ It started me on my journey.”

He came roaring back. In 2009, the Backdoor Art Gallery in Beverly Hills featured a show of Blake’s new style of mixed media and photography in bold, demanding colors. Blake recalled the feeling of certain shots, and he looked for locations where he could find the likelihood of a repeat image. One of his original black and white shots—lost to memory now—featured an eagle landing on a jutting precipice. He re-captured that shot in his new collection with a crow landing on a lamppost, its flared wings suspended in time.

Blake began his career at NYU, where he studied photography and film. He launched his first post-production company at age 23 in New York, where he spent years shooting gritty street scenes, and photo portraits of luminaries such as John Lennon and Woody Allen.

In time, he moved to film production of broad scope: “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” (with Dennis Quaid), to the cult horror classic “Pumpkin Head.” He even acknowledges producing a Sylvester Stallone/Dolly Parton comedy called “Rhinestone,” which prompted one critic to write, “I saw it on an airplane and walked out.”

But photography was Blake’s great passion, and his return to photography has yielded different categories of subjects ranging from “Decisive Moments” to architecturally themed “Studies in Light.”

“For me, there are two types of photography,” Blake said. “Representational and interpretive. I recently started looking again at the work coming from the school of the Chicago Institute of Design. I was just blown away at how beautiful and stark it was.”

With images like the crow landing on the lamppost, he pays homage to artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French granddaddy of photojournalism, whose entire mantra was being there for the “decisive moment” to click, whether it is young lovers kissing spontaneously on a crowded Paris street, or artist Alberto Giacometti transporting his own work.

But having lost everything once, Blake is anxious to catalogue his work. He spent the last two years doing so and is now ready to produce a book, titled “Images… From the Ashes,” that will showcase his artistry of the past six years, as well as a few images saved from the fire at the last second. And he decided to go to his fans. He launched a Kickstarter campaign ending March 17 to provide the funds he needs to print his book and mount several gallery exhibitions.

As a crowd-sourcing effort, it’s a gamble. If he doesn’t receive enough pledges to meet his goal of $24,000, all the funds will be returned to donors. Currently, he is about two-thirds toward his goal.

“I’ve never done a crowd-funding thing before,” Blake said. “I’ve got big pledges and little ones. If we get there, BOA Gallery in West Hollywood will have a show. I’ve got about 120 images to hang and the book will feature all of them.”

To view more about Blake’s campaign visit his Kickstarter page here.