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Jewish Journal

Art from the ashes

by Gerri Miller

February 20, 2014 | 3:18 pm

Billy Blake’s image “Kayaks in the Marina” (2003) recalls his earlier, lost photo of New York’s Jones Beach.

Billy Blake’s image “Kayaks in the Marina” (2003) recalls his earlier, lost photo of New York’s Jones Beach.

Nearly six years ago, photographer Billy Blake narrowly escaped a fire that destroyed his Malibu home — and with it, his life’s work. 

“I lost every negative I ever shot, thousands of photos,” said Blake, now 71, sighing as he related what happened that night in July 2008. 

Blake and his longtime girlfriend, Peggy Semtob, were asleep, and he awoke at 3:30 a.m. to “an orange glow outside the blinds. It didn’t look right, and I looked out the window. There were flames all over.” 

The house next door was burning, and the couple quickly got out with their dog, narrowly escaping the fire that reduced both homes to rubble, damaging another. With the exception of a small box of images that Blake had just transferred from film to digital format and grabbed on the way out, “We lost everything, all our stuff. All my photos, every hard drive, was gone. And we had no insurance. I was devastated,” he said. “It was very, very difficult.”

Blake went through the usual stages of grief — anger, despair, depression.

“I was feeling sorry for myself for months and months.”

Eventually, in early 2009, he thought about the film and digital images he lost and decided to re-create some of his favorites. But he didn’t replicate them exactly. 

“I re-created the essence of the photographs,” he said. 

The photographer is now working to produce a book based on a selection of these new pictures, aptly titled “Images … From the Ashes.” He hopes to finance the project’s printing costs and additional gallery exhibitions through the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter

“We need $24,000, and we’ve raised $5,700 in less than a week,” he said. As of Feb. 18, the project had received more than $7,000 in pledges. 

Once funding for the book is complete, Blake plans to hold gallery shows in New York, Toronto and the Los Angeles area. BOA/SOA gallery in West Hollywood has committed to exhibiting his work, as has Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, Blake said. 

Blake, who now lives in Santa Monica, attributes his positive change in mindset following the fire to Semtob, a hairstylist who won an Emmy for “Mad Men.” A French-Moroccan Jew by birth and a rabbi’s daughter, she now is a practicing Buddhist. She and Blake met online 14 years ago.  

“She’s very organized, determined and grounded. She had a handle on it all. She found us a new apartment. I saw her resolve. She made me realize it’s not about crying over what we lost, it’s how much we still have.”

His own faith came into play, too. Blake celebrated his bar mitzvah, and while he doesn’t consider himself observant today, he nevertheless considers Judaism to be “such a strength in my life.”

“I’m not a religious person, but I’m very spiritual,” he said.


Billy Blake in his studio.

Blake was born in New York of Hungarian-Jewish heritage and grew up in Bronxville. His grandfather worked for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures and changed the family name from Kahn to Blake to avoid any confusion or talk of nepotism. His father, a film producer and avid photographer, died when Blake was 12, but had a lifelong influence on his son’s career. 

“I was the kid with the camera, an Argus C3. I was a fanatic. I loved the creative side of it,” he said. “I studied the masters. I would take four or five large-format books out of the library every day for years so I knew what not to copy.”

Like his father and grandfather before him, Blake, a New York University graduate, tabled that love to go into film production, with the movies “Rhinestone” (Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton), “Pumpkinhead” and “WiseGirls” to his credit. 

“I always loved movies, but photography was my first passion,” Blake said. “I always went back to photography.” 

He married his high school sweetheart, Carol, and had two children. He still remembers her joking, “We’d go on a beautiful vacation and he’d be photographing a sewer.” When they divorced after 27 years — Blake said they remain “best of friends” — he moved west in 1995, and his photographic style changed as a result. 

“I have a pretty unique, eclectic style. I’ve always been into not just recording but taking an impression [of what I see],” he explained. 

Blake characterized his earlier work as a lot of black-and-white studies in the use of light and dark and shadows. “But when I came to California in 1995, I saw everything in color,” Blake said. “It was a whole other world. I shot colors, murals with things in front of them, a lot of abstracts, reflections.”

He also joined the digital generation when Semtob gave him a Nikon digital camera for his 60th birthday. 

“I was hooked. Now I didn’t have to be in the darkroom for hours at a time. And it was just as creative — even more so — because I could do so much more.” 

His efforts to re-create the works that were lost in the fire attempt to rediscover their spirit, not make identical copies.

Consider the example of an overexposed, abstract photo of brightly colored swimsuits taken at New York’s Jones Beach. That photo was reduced to ashes, but then Blake saw something here in California that brought it to mind: “I saw these kayaks in Marina del Rey against the sand, and I felt it had the essence of that photo.”

BOA/SOA owner Bob Ore praised Blake’s work and marveled at the photographer’s resilience after losing everything. “It’s great, totally original. He has a lot of imagination and goes in new directions with the pictures. He’s a very colorful, very talented artist.”

After going through so much, Blake has learned that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

“Never give up. Continue moving and thinking, and don’t give in to the negatives in life. It’s something I live by,” Blake said. “I’m always excited about the next idea, the next project, the next day, the next week.”

For more information on his Kickstarter, visit: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1229627753/images-from-the-ashes-a-photographers-resolve

To learn more about Billy Blake’s book or to contribute, visit this story on jewishjournal.com.

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