Color born of fire

Billy Blake, photographer, film producer and now painter, will debut his new style of mixed media photo art Thursday in Beverly Hills.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When Billy Blake’s Malibu home was burnt in a mysterious fire last year he lost everything.

But rather than let that experience daunt him, he used it as an inspiration for his latest mixed media exhibition titled “Living Colors,” which opens this Thursday at the Backdoor Art Gallery in Beverly Hills.

Blake studied photography and film at NYU and started his first post-production company at age 23 in New York.

He has produced a wide range of films from “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” starring Dennis Quaid and Kristy McNichol, to the cult horror film “Pumpkin Head.” (His grandfather was the Oscar-nominated director/producer Ben K. Blake and his father was director/writer George Blake.) However, the art of photography is where his heart lies.

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He studied the masters of photography like Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who believed that what made a great photographer was an intuition for that perfect fraction of a second to click the camera.

He said he has gone through “every conceivable kind” of camera and now works with a simple point-and-shoot Nikon.

“The great thing with digital now is you can do everything on a computer without the smelly chemicals,” Blake said.

After launching Millimeter magazine in 1972, he worked in film production, but always with his Nikon on hand.

He toyed with images that were not immediately recognizable as a subject and moved easily between black and white and Kodacolor film.

His images were well received at private exhibitions and, when a 27-year marriage ended, he decided to move to California and see what he could accomplish artistically.

“I was born to be in California,” Blake said. “I’ve always had that California mentality and, when the opportunity came up to work here, I jumped. I produced a film with Burt Reynolds and started a company to market American films to foreign markets.”

He also discovered digital photography and decided to digitize the archives of all his work, a project he thought would take about six months and ended up lasting more than five years. He was living in Malibu with his girlfriend. Life was good. Then came the fire.

“I woke up about 3:30 [a.m.] and the whole house was on fire,” Blake said. “I got my girlfriend and my dog out, and only barely managed to get a box that had my discs [of photos] near the front door. If I had lost that, I think I would have died.”

The fire that started July 3, 2008 a few doors east of Duke’s Malibu restaurant gutted an unoccupied home (listed in public records as belonging to a Darius Mohsenin), destroyed Blake’s home and severely damaged the house next door. The Fire Department was never able to pinpoint the cause.

“I lost everything,” Blake said. “We had no clothes, nothing. But it ended up providing the inspiration for this show. I made a commitment to paint every day. I started working with color, which I always thought was frivolous. I started treating abstracts to look like brush strokes, then added brush strokes. I had no point of reference and it was very liberating.”

The result was a body of multimedia work that requires more than a second glance, with closely framed shots of urban walls, in all their graffiti-laden glory, contrasting with shadows and light. Color is heightened in an almost surreal fashion, so that out of the harshness of a run-down building façade, an image of startling vividness emerges.

Director Richard Donner (the “Superman” and “Lethal Weapon” franchises) has been a longtime family friend and fan.

“I’ve known Billy forever and saw the first photos he ever took,” Donner said in a phone interview. “I was always blown away. Art is so subjective, but Billy’s art is multi-layered. He almost gives it a new dimension.”

Proprietor of the Backdoor Art Gallery, Pierre Marcand, is enthusiastic about Blake’s style.

“With photography, you are stuck with the image you’ve taken,” Marcand said. “Adding the brush strokes allows you to still evolve. There is spontaneity to Billy’s work that is an addition to the technology. But he starts with the same tools Michelangelo used hundreds of years ago.”

So what is in Blake’s future, now that he will be known as a visual artist?

“Well, I have a bunch of films in development,” he said. “But with positive feedback from this show, I would stay with it forever.”

Billy Blake’s exhibition, “Living Colors,” runs Oct. 15 through Nov. 30 at the Backdoor Art Gallery, 287 South Robertson (back alley) in Beverly Hills. The gallery opening will take place at 7 p.m. the evening of Oct. 15 and readers of The Malibu Times are invited to the party. Just mention this article at the door. More information can be obtained by calling 310.948.5500.

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