Michael Blanchard writes and shoots with poignant beauty and piercing honesty in his newest photography book. His images, almost all of which are magnificent landscapes, take your breath away. They are sensual experiences of light and color. But this is no ordinary art book. “Through a Sober Lens: A Photographer’s Journey” is Blanchard’s ode to his inner and outer journey in recovery from substance abuse.
Blanchard pairs a small personal essay with each image in the two-page spread. He says, “It is important to know that each essay is a short story that fits on one page. It is a real-life story. Period. It doesn’t lecture or tell the reader what is right or wrong. The stories are meant to make you think and come away with a better understanding.”
Blanchard adds an accompanying statement under each essay that locates the image on the Island in all its glorious beauty. In “Secrets Prevent Healing,” Blanchard pairs a story about an experience in rehab, and what he learned from it, with a picture of the roiling sea crashing about the Oak Bluffs fishing pier. His description: “I took this photo of a nor’easter battering the fishing pier. Storms can take you to your knees. And they can break apart and reveal what needs to be done to see another sunrise.” His essay for a mysterious, shimmering image of the tall ship Alabama is “A Sailboat Is Off Course 99 Percent of the Time,” and the description, “This boat is navigating fog and unchartered waters. It shines bright in the light with the knowledge it doesn’t have to be right on course all the time.”
Blanchard includes quite a few sunrises and sunsets, with water — sometimes peaceful and sometimes a tempest. There is also a particularly arresting one of the Edgartown cemetery in snow, with the caption, “Gravestones dressed in white. The quiet beauty of a life well-lived,” offsetting the story of a time when he believed his “whole life was wrong.”
Blanchard’s topics touch on issues that he feels people need to better understand, whether it be that many addicts relapse because of love, or querying whether intimacy is possible without being fueled by alcohol when you depended on it your whole life. He offers, “I want it to inspire, but also lead to understanding and reducing of shame and stigma. I want to give hope to the hopeless.”
“Photography for me is therapeutic,” Blanchard shares. “I focus on Martha’s Vineyard, which I consider my true home. The first day I set foot on the Island I felt a spiritual connection … I use the camera and the moment to clear away all the problems of daily life and experience each sense to the fullest. Capturing the images of those moments becomes an expression of the happiness and serenity I feel in the absence of alcohol … This book strives to prove that life can be beautiful without sedation and isolation.”
Elsewhere he writes that life brought him ‘to an empty beach at sunset, camera in hand, feeling a connection to something mysterious and awe-inspiring that words can only grasp at. This book is my humble attempt to share this experience, in the hope that it may be of service and inspiration to others.”
How does Blanchard determine his topics? “That’s the cool part!” he says. “On any given day I have no idea what picture I am going to take or what I am going to say. The camera grabs me, and I head out. I take pictures, meet people, and experience nature. I usually don’t come up with what I am going to say until I come home and start post-processing the images. As I look at the photos, stuff happens inside. Joys and frustrations of the day pop in my head as I edit the images … Often there is something I need to express, and it comes out in the context of what I am looking at. The time in the studio is as therapeutic as the time on the beach.”
Leafing through the book is a joy due in large part to the beauty of its production. Islander Julian Wise, who named his new company after his daughter, says, “This is my first book as the founder of Genevieve Press — I’ve been an editor on several others. I loved Michael’s first book, and was determined enough that he have a follow-up that I started Genevieve Press to create a vehicle for its creation. Michael is an extraordinary individual, a man on a mission to help as many people as possible and reach out a helping hand to those in the darkness of addiction and mental illness.”
Blanchard says that the book is about living life to its fullest. Addiction is the central theme, but the book is more than that.
“I want people to know that life can be amazingly beautiful without numbing,” he says. “Pain is ever-present, but only serves to make the beautiful times all the better. Life was meant to be lived with each other and out of isolation.”
“Through a Sober Lens: A Photographer’s Journey,” by Michael Blanchard. Genevieve Press. Available online at blanchardphotomv.com/through-a-sober-lens. He has pledged that a portion of the sales of this book will go to addiction treatment on Martha’s Vineyard.
Blanchard will be speaking at the Vineyard Haven library on Dec. 8 at 2 pm, and at the West Tisbury library on Dec. 12 at 4:30 pm.