DOWNTOWN — As the fire grew Billy Blake managed to get himself and his dog out, but he couldn’t save the tens of thousands of photos he’d taken.
It was like someone ripped out his memories. His day with John Lennon in New York City. That morning on the gray beach with bathers in colorful suits. That perfect moment as an eagle landed, wings spread, on a perch. All gone.
As the house burned, the 71-year-old did what he’d done his whole life: snapped more photographs.
“It was horrible but I was detached,” said Blake, who’s captured notables like Michael Jackson, Woody Allen and Burt Reynolds during his 50-year career. “I remember in New York being in danger when I was taking pictures of gangs but I never thought of it because I was detached. It’s like that.”
He doesn’t reattach when he looks at the fire photos.
“Emotionally I can’t afford to,” he said.
The fire destroyed Blake’s uninsured Malibu home in 2008, and along with it his life’s work. He failed to backup his prints.
He’s lived in Santa Monica ever since. After the flames wiped out nearly every photo he’d ever taken, Blake hung the camera up for months. He couldn’t handle it.
Now he’s back, taking the fire head-on. Blake’s recreated, stylistically not literally, 10 of his favorite lost images.
In Palisades Park, he saw a bunch of birds landing on a perch. It fired off a memory of the eagle photograph from decades before.
“It’s wingspan was perfect,” he said. “I could never recreate that.”
He didn’t try to, but he did wait for it to get dark and snapped a new one of the birds, an homage to the eagle.
“Have you ever typed something on a computer and then it shut down and you lost everything you’d done for the last 15 minutes?” he asked. “This was 50 years. There were months of self-pity. I didn’t even want to look at a camera.”
The project pulled him back out of it.
“It was rough on Billy,” said long-time friend Howard Marks. “I think ultimately he channeled it into anger and said ‘I’m not going to quit.’ He decided that it wasn’t a two minute thing. It took him a year to take 10 of these and I think it was cathartic.”
Blake started again with color abstracts, overexposed with swatches of color.
“It was like getting back in the saddle,” he said. “I kept thinking about the fact that I’ll never have a complete portfolio that seems good enough.”
He continued to recapture his memories. Colorful kayaks on a dark waterway replaced the bathing suits on the gray sands. The photos of his flaming home are followed by one of an empty lot.
Amid the reminiscing, Blake is creating something new: a limited-run book of his work. He is trying to finance “Images … from the Ashes” through Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. He’s halfway to his goal of $24,000 with just over two weeks to go.
“I think it’s made him better,” Marks said of the fire. “It’s like people from the ‘60s; in the ‘70s they didn’t have causes to rally around anymore. He has a cause.”
Blake says he hasn’t changed. He’s still playing with exposure and studying light.
“Light is amazing,” he said. “It moves and you keep trying to follow it and it never stays the same.”
Blake’s fundraiser can be viewed at kck.st/1kTt1qF or by searching “Images from the Ashes” on Kickstarter.com