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ARTIST PROFILE

Michael Blanchard In Focus
In a new book, Island photographer & visionary shares his views

By CK Wolfson Photography by Michael Blanchard

His photographs are an all-things-possible impression of what he sees through his lens – the world as it could be, as it should be. Island skies, sea and landscapes, early morning harbors, the Campgrounds in celebration, footprints in the snow on Edgartown’s Main Street, a bird in that instant before decision, a weathered barn that conjures sentiment, a troop of cairns at attention — everything infused with intensity and a clarity of detail that translates image into visual poetry.

Michael Blanchard, who opened Crossroads Gallery on Dukes County Avenue this past Memorial Day weekend, believes taking the photo is “just the beginning, just the gathering of material.” He says, “I don’t figure it all out while I’m taking the picture. It’s when I come back to the studio that I’m like a little kid opening a present. I get lost in the image.”

He continues, “I’m trying to find a way to tell a story, not just produce a picture of stacked rocks... It’s up to me to make it speak. When I take a picture I feel the need to express it in a way that will help somebody. I’m trying to connect.”

The 62-year old Blanchard, a former executive for a large health care company in Maine, is in jeans and sweatshirt informal and completely approachable despite the gale-force energy that swirls around him. He greets the people who stroll into his gallery as if he’s holding a reunion, rather than a first meeting.

And the Oak Bluffs gallery (formerly Red Manikin boutique) extends that impression. Before walking through the door visitors are met with welcome signs, photographic displays, and just the right touch — a small table and chairs should they want to sit outside and talk.

Inside, low ceiling, antiqued and paint-dappled wooden walls and floor. The artfully rustic gallery sparkles with his crisp and color-drenched work: panoramas and single images, large and small prints matted or framed, on aluminum, canvas or paper.

With his golden-doodle Brodie following at his heels, Blanchard guides his visitor along, pausing at this and that print to explain process, circumstance, place, and with equal enthusiasm, those people he encountered while shooting and what they talked about.

It becomes clear that his photographs are only one aspect of a larger mission.

An alcoholic for most of his adult life, his recovery began in 2010 after three months in a rehabilitation facility. But it was after hearing an inspirational speaker talk about photography in a way resonated with him that his life took a new and meaningful direction. He began taking photographs, researching, consulting, and spending trial-and-error time learning.

“Five-years years ago I had no confidence whatsoever. I was like a deer in the headlights. But the camera brought me out of isolation and back into life again. It forced me to do things I never would have done before.”

He adds, “And even if nothing I ever do in my life is good enough, there’s a deep-seeded need in me to drive myself harder and further.”

He does his own production and office work in the workshop downstairs: printing, matting, framing, filling orders, and shipping — more work than he can keep up with he says.

Blanchard, who this year earned a master’s degree in psychology, began writing as a way to amplify the messages in his photographs and heighten the empathetic connection with viewers. “I like attaching words to photographs so I can show people that if I made it, so can they. I want people to see the possibilities around them.”

His books demonstrate that goal. Fighting for My Life: Finding Hope and Serenity on Martha's Vineyard (2014), and Through A Sober Lens: A Photographers Journey (November, 2019), pair his personal essays with his photos.

In addition, Blanchard maintains a schedule of speaking engagements and at school, community, and wellness programs. He is active on social media with more than 52,000 followers on Facebook, and approximately 400 on his recently opened Instagram account.

And his followers make themselves known, sometimes even showing up on-island to meet him. When he’s on a beach or just about anywhere with his camera he is no longer surprised when strangers familiar with his outreach efforts approach him and share their
stories. The gallery has become “a
meeting place.”

He smiles. “I never could have guessed what goes on here. It’s not just about hanging and selling photographs. This has become a place where people come in and sometimes hug, or laugh, or cry. They come from all over the world because we’ve found some sort of connection through social media.”

Personal and professional are comfortably intertwined. His relationships are solid with his children, Mike, 33, a research assistant at Harvard, and Sarah, 23, a residential coordinator at a recovery facility, and his partner of almost three years, Anne-Marie Bell, an island nurse practitioner.

Blanchard knows he is at a good point in his life, and his gratitude clearly seeps out as he talks.

“Finding the most meaningful photos are the result of letting go and just following impulse,” he says. “You find stuff. I’m sitting on the beach at 5:30 in the morning. I close my eyes, feel the wind, listen to the waves and when I open my eyes I see two seagulls flying over a copper moon, and I’m feeling so friggin’ blessed to be standing there doing something I like.”

Blanchard describes his equipment and its impact on his work with enthusiasm. He uses a photographer’s ephemeris application that shows when the moon rises and sets. He has a DJI Mavic Pro 2 drone for aerial views, a Canon 5D MK III, camera, and a choice of 11 lenses. With his telephoto zoom lens he can adjust the clarity and the scale of objects to each other and turn the moon into a huge magical orb that owns the sky.

He seems to relish the complexities in post-processing, such as overlaying one to three identical digital images, each in different exposures to achieve detailing beyond the capabilities of a single exposure. It brings an almost linear definition to the veins in each leaf and shingle.

“You don’t have to accept the limitations of the camera,” he says. “You can go beyond what the eye can see it. This is what excites me; finding something that is not easy to get to.”

And he adds, “I’m ready to find different subjects off-island. There is more to be discovered — and not just in beautiful places — but in me.”