Chuck Blake captured the face, and faces, of Franklin County
Charles “Chuck” Blake Jr., the Recorder photographer whose mostly black-and-white images of Franklin County life were seen by thousands of residents for decades as The Recorder’s chief photographer, died Sunday at his Bernardston home. He was 86.
A self-taught photographer who learned his craft from the New York Institute of Photography’s correspondence courses, Blake worked for The Recorder for 46 years, starting as a stereotyper, producing the metal plates that were mounted on a printing press and inked to produce the newspaper in the days of hot lead type.
Blake, who was among workers in those days who had to handle molten lead and heavy plates in hot, sometimes dangerous conditions, used to tell the story of the day he slipped and inadvertently plunged his hand into the “hell pot” — a vat of seething lead. Only the fact that his hand had already been covered with sweat — which instantly turned to insulating steam — saved him from a terrible burn.
Eventually, he was tapped to become the newspaper’s photographer — a role that had him responding to police and fire emergencies around Franklin County, but also recording the faces and places around the region.
“He recorded life in Franklin County,” said Recorder photographer Paul Franz, who worked with Blake before his retirement in 1990. “He knew everybody and everybody knew him. I can’t tell you the number of times he came into the newsroom with tips for stories.”
With a police scanner in his car and at home, Blake — himself a special police officer in Bernardston — was known by emergency responders for showing up at accidents and fires at all hours.
“Chuck was always there when we needed him,” recalled Editor Tim Blagg. “Late-night calls, interruptions of family life, chaotic fire or accident scenes … he would get the shot.”
“Sometimes he’d be there before you,” said former Montague Police Raymond Zukowski, who like other police and fire officials would often depend on Blake to document crime and accident scenes. “It was a calming effect to have him show up for you. He was just always there.”
As part of his “Photos by Blake” side business on weekends, the Greenfield-reared photographer was a part of the celebrations for many couples.
“Whose wedding didn’t he do when everybody was young?” said Zukowski. “At every St. Kaziemerz wedding, Chuck was the photographer. He was just such a fixture and always had that camera around his neck.”
“He was truly an institution,” said Bob Laramie, who grew up in Greenfield and worked with Blake when he was in the newspaper’s composing room in 1963 and then worked with him in the 1980s as a photographer for the newspaper.
“He was a good-hearted guy who loved practical jokes,” recalls Laramie, who was greeted as a teenager by Blake on his first day with instructions to go downstairs to the pressroom “to fetch a bucket of steam from Dick Perry who at the time ran that department. No one was surprised that Chuck had done this. That incident kind of sums up the Chuck Blake experience. He used to have that twinkle in his eye, and you knew you were in trouble. ”
Laramie, who left The Recorder in 1982 and eventually became photo editor for the Philadelphia Daily News, said his 20 years working with Blake “was a valuable learning experience for me.”
Denny Wilkins, another Greenfield native who worked with Blake as an editor at The Recorder, recalled that Blake could be “hard on his equipment. Because he often had to shoot in situations such as fires and accidents, where he had little time to focus, he decided he wanted a fixed-focus lens. So he took one of his 28mm wide-angle lenses and glued it focused on infinity. That did not endear him to either Recorder editors or camera-repair technicians.”
Wilkins added: “Chuck probably got more long-before-dawn phone calls from police and firefighters than anyone in county history. He knew so many people who lived to protect and serve. They trusted him. So they called him, and Recorder readers saw images of human tragedy and triumph no other media outlet had. Reporters traditionally cover specific beats; Chuck’s beat was Franklin County and everything that occurred in it.”
Finally, Wilkins recalled, “Chuck knew how to photograph people — especially those who did not want to be photographed. He would cajole them, he would tease them, but mostly he would wear them down. His (occasionally) profane humor invariably induced a smile.”
Blake’s dedication to his craft was legendary, such as when he responded one weekend to Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage Project when it was still under construction in 1972 — and its underground powerhouse had flooded with water. Part-way into the tunnel the mountain, he realized that he didn’t have the lights necessary to get the shot, and was prevented by the security workers from returning with the extra equipment.
Recorder Managing Editor George Forcier said Blake “still stands out as a hard-driving photojournalist, literally hard-driving. Like the time he chased a runaway locomotive, racing along local roads through Erving and Montague trying to intercept the train so he could snap it barreling through an intersection.”
Forcier also recalled the time Blake was alerted by the scanner in his car about police chasing a suspect in Bernardston. Special Police Officer Blake caught up with the fleeing man first, tackled him and sat on him until the regular police arrived, then got his picture for The Recorder.
Blake was also the first on the scene of a 1985 fiery train derailment in north Greenfield that forced evacuation of half the town. In a time when taking color photos was reserved for holidays and required advance planning, Blake had the presence of mind to shoot color film, which the newspaper managed to use the next day to capture the drama of orange flames and deep black smoke pouring into the noon sky from the derailed chemical tanker.
“For Chuck, it was never about winning awards, although he did that, too,” Forcier said. “It was about covering the news of Franklin County for his friends and neighbors.”