There are many reasons for a project creator to approach crowdfunding, whether it’s to develop the latest gadget or help expand a business. But for Billy Blake, the creator behind IMAGES … From the Ashes, Kickstarter isn’t helping him create something new; it’s helping him reclaim a part of his life he once thought was lost forever.
When I first came across this project, I thought – “Oh, great, another candidate for my coffee table.” I’m not particularly excited by photography books in general, but then I read a little further and realized that this project was way more than the standard coffee-mug holder (you know you do it, too.) Blake, a 71-year-old photographer who spent his youth in New York City shooting photos of John Lennon and Woody Allen, has been featured in nearly 40 gallery exhibitions. In 2008, he was preparing to publish a photo book when a massive fire consumed his home and possessions, destroying nearly all of his photos from the first 30 years of his career.
Devastated but not defeated, Blake began work on recreating the images “from the ashes” and is now ready to publish his first book and an exhibition of the once-lost compositions. The campaign has raised 83% of its $24,000 goal, with four days left to succeed. We asked Blake about his approach to crowdfunding, his passion for photography, and his experience as one of Kickstarter’s most elderly project creators.
Kicktraq: How did you first hear about Kickstarter?
Billy Blake: I have known about the existence of Kickstarter for some time. As a former film producer, the media surrounding some of their film projects was substantial, which is how they first came to my attention.
Kicktraq: Why did you decide to approach crowdfunding to support this project?
Blake: I needed to find some basis for obtaining financial assistance, and whereas I felt there might be people in my inner circle that might make loans to me, that’s a tough thing to ask for. With crowdfunding, you get to tell your story and even if money winds up coming in from those same people that would have made loans, it is more pleasant because they see your story first, in a nice way. It’s a way more visually artistic way to be soliciting, and you hope to entice strangers, too. In terms of Kickstarter as the site I chose, I like the all-or-nothing funding and their experience. I think backers like it too. I did some research and the Kickstarter culture was a draw for me.
Kicktraq: You aren’t in the typical age demographic for Kickstarter projects. In that respect, what can you tell us about your experience using the Kickstarter platform as an older project creator? What have you learned from the experience?
Blake: Well, I am way ahead of my peers in terms of my tech and online aptitude, but at 71, I am of course nowhere near the level of the average Kickstarter person, especially those in video games and gadgets. It also takes me longer to do things. And if I fall, I bruise more easily (joke). What I have learned from the experience is almost all good. My story is that I lost my house, 90% of my worth, and 80% of my photography – including all the negatives from my first 30 years that I did not yet digitize – in a really bad fire in 2008. So I was really down for a while, and when I got my stuff together and began resolving to rise above it, I had a lot of work to do. This Kickstarter campaign is the culmination. So – getting back to your question – what I have learned from the experience is that it is never too late, we can rise above anything if we think it through and put in the effort, and we need to avoid fears and ruts in our lives and see life as more of an adventure. I was way down after the fire, which was natural. But I’m back now, and I’m having a ball.
Kicktraq: What has been the biggest struggle in running your campaign?
Blake: OK, the biggest struggle in my campaign is something I was fortunately prepared for because I researched it. The photography category on Kickstarter has a certain amount of followers, but not nearly as many as film/TV or games. There are also so many great projects on Kickstarter and people have short attention spans, and what I am selling is my body of work, coupled with my story of resolve to come back from the fire. But, truth be told, people have to spend a few minutes on my project page to get it and to see the work. So the photography projects best geared to reach the overall [Kickstarter] community are going to be those that don’t require effort from the surfer because they talk about a destination he knows (Ottawa, Savannah – does not have to be glamorous), a known famous entity (The Grateful Dead, Hunter Thompson, the Band), or something instantly intriguing (the photos of Chernobyl). I am fortunate that the people who are going to my page are backing. More than 30% of the people who just watch my video are backing, and people tell me this is outstanding. But the challenge and the struggle is to get more people to opt to go to my page and watch the video.
Kicktraq: What part of the Kickstarter process has been your most enjoyable?
Blake: The learning curve at my age is fun, keeps me sharp. And I love engaging new people, the re-connecting with old friends, back and forth with other project creators, and you can’t beat the sound of a new email popping up telling you that you have a new backer.
Kicktraq: How did you first get into photography? Please tell us a little bit about your hobby and how it turned into the passion we see in this campaign.
Blake: I was born and raised in NY and my dad was in entertainment. I got my first Nikon as a teen. I was also a museum rat in those early days, attracted to bold strokes and impressionist and abstract painters, struck by the courage they showed in presenting the world as they saw it. It took me a long time to train my eye to look at a scene and focus in on objects, shapes or colors/shades that would produce photography that would, in turn, move me in the same way. I studied Art History and Photography at New York University in the 1960’s. I became a NYC street photographer. I gained access to John Lennon, Woody Allen, and others, and had a blast, but that wasn’t art to me. Then with an increased influence of the Impressionists and Surrealists, I began a fascination with the unique and transient nature of light. That made me feel like an artist, and I still like to use deception through reflections, juxtapositions, distortions, extreme close-ups, and especially enhanced color. As such, some of my photographs have a secret, or a riddle to be figured out.
Kicktraq: How do you think Kickstarter has affected the creative community?
Blake: I see it as 98% positive. We live in a day where wealth is becoming more and more narrowly concentrated. I think that stinks. I also think Kickstarter is responsible for many excellent projects coming to fruition whose creators maybe could not have done it any other way. I wish the viral component of the backing process was more plentiful. But that’s a function of there being so many wonderful projects to choose from. And I even like that a few celebrities who don’t need crowdfunding got blasted and shamed when they mounted a campaign to raise money from the public. I don’t really see much negative with Kickstarter – they seem to be running things correctly. No more hacking stories would be nice.
Kicktraq: What advice do you wish someone would have told you prior to starting your campaign?
Blake: Don’t expect to take much of a breather anytime soon. I knew it was going to be work, and it’s fun, don’t get me wrong. But it’s tons of work and you have to take every free moment and use them to learn more about how this works and try stuff. Nobody knows it all; there is so much.
Kicktraq: What makes your project unique? Why do you think people should back it?
Blake: My story is very real and heartfelt. The work that was destroyed in the fire defined me, and I am an example of how resolve can help you triumph. But it’s not about me, it’s about the art. It all comes down to my photography. They should back it because they see it and they like it, and so they want the rewards, and they believe the book and the exhibitions should come to pass.
Rewards range from hand-signed letters and photographs, to VIP passes to a private Opening Night gala at the BOA Gallery in West Hollywood. The largest reward offers backers the chance to have Blake create a unique canvas piece featuring their likeness as a hidden component in the background. I’m pretty sure that would be a conversation piece for your living room for the next 10 years at least. Blake welcomes comments, questions, and interaction, and has asked anyone interested to reach out him via email at bblakela [at] aol.com.