Capturing a community by being part of it: Blotnick captured
day-to-day Canyon life for 20 years
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
Suspended in the silvery mystique of poet/photographer Elihu Blotnick's 32 silver gelatin prints, on display at Berkeley's LightRoom Gallery through July 5, a community's unfettered childlike joy and ghostly essence abound.
It's Canyon, the small, East Bay community wedged among redwood trees just 26 miles from San Francisco (just southwest of Orinda and Moraga, and only 11 miles from downtown Walnut Creek), and yet a world away from high-rises and overpopulated cement walkways.
It is the allegorical exhibit distilling Blotnick's 20 years of observation, from 1970 to 1990, his black-and-white pictures telling the story of his rare, almost inexplicable adoption as the area's school photographer and community chronicler. It's also a pictorial profile of a secluded, spectacular environment, where a public school recognized each student as one-of-a-kind and Canyon's shadowy history was not obliterated, but instead allowed to cast itself on the people and filter, unrestrained, into their futures.
It's a leap to suggest that a Nikon FTN, with 35 and 85 mm Nikkor lenses, a stack of no-longer-available Portriga Rapid paper and a darkroom's liquid chemistry could embody the wild west, ecology, 20th century fashion and a universe of doubt, hope, discipline and rebellious freedom. But visiting the gallery or thumbing through "Seedlings, the Canyon Kids," a 72-image book published by Firefall Editions in 2009, there's no denying the work's suggestive complexity.
A girl, approximately 11, reclines in front of a United States map in a classroom. Her arched torso, extended arm, languidly cocked wrist and startlingly striped shirt add up to a model's glamour, a tiger's ferocity, a student studying.
Blotnick's work has appeared in publications including Esquire, Life, Harper's, and Camera. His imagery has been exhibited at Musée d'Art Moderne, the Ansel Adams Center, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Oakland Museum and at galleries in the U.S. and abroad.
But in 1970, he was studying writing in Berkeley, eyeing the literary landscape for purpose. In some ways, Blotnick's arrival in Canyon was inevitable. A former girlfriend invited him; the car he drove was incapable of driving in reverse; and Canyon's underground film scene appealed to his words and pictures fixation.
"The first time I went out, no one spoke to me, because so many people just drifted through," Blotnick recalls in an interview.
Indeed, during the 1960s, Canyon either fought or embraced (depending on the person) a reputation for attracting hippies and leaders of alternative lifestyles. But the larger battle -- much of it happening during Blotnick's years--was with governmental intrusion and resulted in Canyon's all-important post office and k-8 public school. Having a Zip code and being a school district protected the town and inevitably, shaped its independent, chasmic persona.
"I got a P.O. box, mostly so I could talk to people," Blotnick says. "There was never a question of privacy for me because I became part of the community. I was there so much, interacting and helping. I was part of the privacy."
Over two decades, Blotnick took individual portraits, shot class photos, and asked kids simple questions, like "What class do you like?" and "Will you tell me about your family?" He wound up with more than 1,000 images, half of which he says he wouldn't mind showing (he'd throw the others away). And Blotnick remembers kids loved to talk -- about each other, about fights they'd won or lost, about family and their futures.
"I was overhearing," he says. "I was always low to the ground: crawling on my knees. After a while, they ignored me."
School Superintendent Gloria Faircloth moved to Canyon in 1977 and met Blotnick when her son entered kindergarten in 1989.
"We've gone through several photographers (since Blotnick) and no one has been able to capture, as well as Elihu, the feeling of kids being themselves. (His photos) have the emotional feeling of a family snapshot, but also a beautiful finished, balanced, archival feeling," she says.
Sally Hogarty, a 25-year resident, says the photographer always elicited great expressions from the kids and has captured "the free spirit and slightly rebellious nature of our little paradise."
Faircloth doesn't worry about the photographs bringing unwanted attention or change to Canyon. She says "the bigger picture" is more of a scourge, with rising real estate prices meaning "gentrification is seeping in." She and the younger generation are "holding onto what they can," she promises.
Blotnick still has his PO box and visits as often as possible, catching up on local gossip and shooting requested photos.
"I have a standing invitation," he says. "And I had a sense, the last time I went out there, of naturalness and ease. I could do the same thing over again. It would be different, but the same elements are there to capture."