Longtime Reuters photographer has enjoyed a front seat to history

By Rob LeDonne

It’s not hyperbole to say that Mike Blake has photographed virtually every event of cultural significance for the past 25 years. His lens has captured events as varied as the Super Bowl, Olympics, Oscars, Grammys, NBA playoffs, and the list goes on and on, all for the Reuters News Agency, a global news source that countless websites, newspapers, and TV stations rely on for images and information.

“There’s something about the human condition and the still picture,” he explained from his North County home. “You really don’t see an event until you look at a picture of it.”

Reuters, which was first started in the 1800s by Paul Julies Reuter who used carrier pigeons to let people know when ships would come in, is now, as Blake explains it, a “global news service, so we always look at stories from a world perspective.” That means as a senior photographer for Reuters Blake dashes up and down the West Coast covering whatever the rest of the world would be interested in. Originally, however, Blake was taking pictures of him and his friends skateboarding as a kid growing up in Toronto, Canada: “That’s how I got into photography. After taking some classes in high school, I went to art school but dropped out because I didn’t want to learn the whole foundation of painting and drawing — all I wanted to do was take pictures.”

Blake soon found himself at Reuters, where he started in the late 1980s. After moving from Toronto to Vancouver, Blake wound up in Southern California thanks to his wife who works in the music industry.

“California is very interesting,” said Blake. “It’s a driver of so many cultures; lots of things start in this state. It’s fascinating to watch the culture here.”

Over the years, Blake’s pictures of life in Southern California and around the country — from Tiger Woods winning the Masters, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, and this past year’s Grammys and Oscars — have wound up everywhere from the front pages of websites, magazines, books, and on television.

“As any photographer will tell you, sometimes things go your way and sometimes they don’t,” Blake explains, and one particular night when everything went his way occurred in 1998 during the NBA playoffs in Salt Lake City.

“Michael Jordan (as a member of the Chicago Bulls) stole the ball with 9 seconds left to win the game, and he happened to be right in front of me, directly lined up with the basket so I got some great shots there. After the game, I was there when they were giving speeches, and then followed him to the locker room when they were spraying champagne everywhere, so I thought I had some amazing pictures and went to run back to send everything in. As I was walking down an arena hallway to leave, I see him and his mother hugging and took more shots. Everything just clicked.”

Aside from cultural and sporting events, Blake sometimes goes on dangerous assignments as well. This past April, he went on a ride-along with authorities on the United States/Mexican border, which Blake says was eye opening.

“I made a few phone calls because it’s such an interesting story. You have people who are trying to hop the border in search of a better life, and you have agents who are risking their lives to patrol it. It was a tricky story.”

In addition, since Blake lives in North County, he’s become accustomed to taking photos all over the area that also run globally. Recently, a story on McDonald’s needed a companion picture, so Blake went to the restaurant’s location in the Del Mar Highlands to snap a few pictures of the famous golden arches outside; shots taken locally of Ralphs, Whole Foods, and gas pumps have also found their way across the world.

“You’d be surprised how many professional photographers live in the North County,” said Blake. “There’s a lot of them that work for a variety of publications.”

All in all, Blake is amazed at how the profession has changed since he started working with Reuters.

“We used to have our own darkroom kits to develop the negatives. Today, for example, I can photograph the Rolling Stones up in Anaheim, and have the pictures sent in even before the show ends. It’s amazing how pictures move around the world now.”

Blake is also impressed by how photography seems to be more popular than ever.

“Instagram is probably the greatest picture distribution system ever created,” he says of the application. “People look at photos now and appreciate them much more since everyone is recording everything.”

For now, Blake is basking in a decades-long career which pays off when walking through a bookstore with his son. “I’ll pass by a book and see there’s a picture on the cover I took and show him. I notice that all the time now, especially with how long I’ve been working.”