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Mark Chamberlain, photographer, gallery owner and environmentalist known for the ‘Laguna Canyon Project,’ dies at 75

Mark Chamberlain, photographer, gallery owner and environmentalist known for the ‘Laguna Canyon Project,’ dies at 75
Mark Chamberlain, co-founder of the BC Space gallery in Laguna Beach, is pictured in 2016. The co-creator of the “Laguna Canyon Projectsxw” died Monday of lung cancer at age 75. (File Photo)

Mark Chamberlain, a Laguna Beach gallery owner known for his photography and environmentalism, has died.

The longtime Laguna resident died Monday morning of lung cancer after a weeks-long stay in an Irvine hospital, his partner, Liz Goldner, said Wednesday. He was 75.

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Chamberlain was best known for the "Laguna Canyon Project," which lasted from 1980 to 2010. Alongside fellow photographer Jerry Burchfield, Chamberlain extensively photographed along Laguna Canyon Road, the city's main artery to and from the inland, portions of which remain only two lanes despite the area's population growth. Their initial goal was to document the canyon's bucolic feel because they feared it was going to be developed and changed forever.

"We started documenting Laguna Canyon because of a particular fondness for the location," Burchfield told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "Its unique rural nature separates Laguna Beach from the rest of the more congested urban Orange County."

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Chamberlain and Burchfield, who died in 2009, eventually called their endeavor "artivism," a combination of art and activism.

In 1989, their project reached its zenith with the installation of "The Tell," a giant photographic mural whose silhouette mimicked the shape of the hills behind it. It was 636 feet long, with curved portions about 35 feet tall. Its name was taken from an archaeological term for buried artifacts.

"The Tell" contained some 60,000 photographs, most of them donated, that depicted varied subjects: a swimmer, a dinosaur, oil wells, people sleeping and making dinner and the like.

A Times art critic, while calling the images "cliched and scattershot," said the general idea was clear: "Nature is ancient, nurturing and full of good vibes, but greed has turned it into a battleground."

In an interview with The Times, Chamberlain called his work "a flag, if you will, something to rally around. ... People have been thirsting for a direct way to express their feelings."

The installation was placed along Laguna Canyon Road, provocatively near the proposed site of Laguna Laurel, an Irvine Co. development slated to contain more than 3,000 homes, commercial uses and a golf course. In the months the mural was on display, it attracted a demonstration with an estimated 11,000 participants.

Environmentalists have credited "The Tell" — most of which burned during the 1993 Laguna wildfires while in storage — as a turning point that led to scrapping the development. The Laguna Laurel site eventually became part of what is now Laguna Coast Wilderness Park.

"Mark was one of Laguna Canyon's fiercest advocates," the Laguna Canyon Conservancy said in a statement on its Facebook page. "Thanks to 'The Tell' and the walk in the canyon, we did the impossible and saved our canyon. It couldn't have been done without Mark, Jerry and all those who marched, wrote letters and repeatedly filled the chambers of City Hall and the [Orange County] Board of Supervisors. Mark will be missed by so many."

In a story about "The Tell" posted on Chamberlain's website, he said: "Those rambling darkroom dialogues with Jerry over what we could do to protect a valuable piece of countryside evolved into a project that actually helped preserve that land. Although encroachment is still a threat, the road and its surrounding hills are designated to remain undeveloped forever."

Chamberlain was born July 16, 1942, in Dubuque, Iowa, where he grew up. He graduated from the University of Iowa before serving in the Army during the Vietnam War. While in the service, he picked up photography and learned it could be his creative outlet.

In 1973, Chamberlain and Burchfield opened BC Photography and Custom Lab Services, which later was shortened to BC Space. The 900-square-foot, nondescript gallery in a former Masonic lodge along Forest Avenue near Main Beach has long been known for attracting innovative shows and exhibits, often dealing with political or environmental issues.

Goldner said he finished his final book about the "Laguna Canyon Project" in December. "The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism" has seven contributors and was published by Laguna Wilderness Press.

In addition to Goldner, Chamberlain is survived by his sisters Bell Chalmers and Sarah Knapp; his ex-wife, Susan Rederus Chamberlain; and son Austin Rederus Chamberlain.

Public services are planned, but arrangements are not final, Goldner said.

BRADLEY ZINT is a contributor to Times Community News.

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