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Jerry Burchfield dies at 62; photographer documented evolution of O.C. landmarks

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Jerry Burchfield, a photographer and educator who helped document the evolution of two Orange County landmarks, has died. He was 62.

Burchfield, a professor and photography gallery director at Cypress College since 1987, died Sept. 11 at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. He had colon cancer, said his wife, Barbara.

Burchfield had "an international reputation as an important contemporary artist with a social and political point of view," said Bolton Colburn, director of the Laguna Art Museum, which exhibited Burchfield's works in 1973 and 2000.

From 1973 to 1987 Burchfield co-owned BC Space Gallery in Laguna Beach with Mark Chamberlain. Colburn said Burchfield and Chamberlain "certainly weren't shy about getting in with subject matter that had political implications," and in Orange County that often meant environmental issues.

The project in Laguna Canyon, which remains one of the few relatively undeveloped areas of Orange County, started in 1974, Chamberlain said.

"We started documenting Laguna Canyon because of a particular fondness for the location," Burchfield told The Times in 1989. "We felt that some sort of development was inevitable. As photographers, we believed that we might not play a role in stopping the development. So the least we could do was use our craft to document the environment so that there is a record of it."

Burchfield and Chamberlain began tracing the life in the canyon, including taking photos the length of Laguna Canyon Road. Thousands of photos -- many donated by others -- were compiled into a huge mural they called "The Tell," which referred to an archaeological term about a core sampling that tells the earth's geological history.

In November 1989, an estimated 7,000 people marched through the canyon to the mural as part of a protest over plans to build more than 3,000 homes.

"The Tell was one of the most galvanizing instruments we had for getting people involved and interested in the future of Laguna Beach," Michael Phillips, executive director of the Laguna Greenbelt and Laguna Canyon Conservancy, told the Orange County Register in 1991. Developers eventually agreed to sell a canyon site to the city of Laguna Beach. The mural was taken down in 1990, but the project continues, Chamberlain said.

In 2002, Burchfield and Chamberlain started photographing the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, which had closed as an active base in 1999. After much debate over turning the facility into a commercial airport, a Great Park and some residential use is now planned for the site.

"We all felt that an important part of Orange County's history was being overlooked due to the issues surrounding what it should be used for," Burchfield told the Register last year.

"Regardless of what happened to it, the history of the base needed to be documented as best could be done."

With five other photographers working on the Legacy Project at the old base, Burchfield created what is believed to be the world's largest functioning pinhole camera obscura and the world's largest photograph, one of thousands taken to document the transition from Marine base to park. "I've never been a proponent of hit-and-run photography. This allows our knowledge to develop," he said.

Jerry Lee Burchfield was born July 28, 1947, in Chicago. He received bachelor's, master's in art and master of fine arts degrees from Cal State Fullerton.

He wrote several books about photography and received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1981. His work has been exhibited in the United States, Europe and Japan. Along with Cypress College, he taught at Cal State Fullerton as well as at Chaffey, Mt. San Antonio, Saddleback and Orange Coast colleges.

"He was a multifaceted individual, an outstanding educator, a mentor, friend and ally," Chamberlain said

Besides his wife, Burchfield is survived by his son, Brian, and his father, Darrell. Services are pending. A scholarship fund has been set up in Burchfield's name. The family asks that donations be sent to the Cypress College Foundation, attention Laura Stephens, 9200 Valley View St., Cypress, CA 90630.

keith.thursby@latimes.com

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