George 'Elfie' Ballis dies at 85; photographer documented United Farm Workers

Photographer George "Elfie" Ballis, who walked with the late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and led a rebellion against farmers over water, has died. He was 85.

Ballis died Sept. 24 at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fresno. His ailments included prostate cancer, friends said.

Ballis took more than 30,000 photographs during the 1950s and '60s.One of his most memorable photographs shows Chavez in March 1966 leading farm workers on a pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento.

"No one [else] has consistently demonstrated George's love and commitment to La Causa over so many decades," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and Paul F. Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation and son of Cesar Chavez, said in a joint statement.

Ballis "could move like the wind and blend into the scenery," said Mike Rhodes, editor of Community Alliance, a monthly newspaper based in Fresno.

His secret: whether his subjects were farm workers or Native Americans, he got to know them before snapping pictures. Once he gained their trust, he was able to make photographs of people being themselves, Rhodes said.

"I took my camera out to the field, determined I was going to help farm workers and make changes," Ballis told the Fresno Bee in 2004. "But these people didn't remain subjects for very long. They became my friends."

Born Aug. 12, 1925, in Fairibault, Minn., Ballis helped his parents run a dry-cleaning business and was a high school football star.

In 1943, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and repaired radar equipment in Chicago and torpedo bombers in the South Pacific.

Ballis said the experience made him a man and gave him his first look at the world outside Minnesota — an experience that would change his life.

After the war, Ballis enrolled at the University of Minnesota, planning to become an electrical engineer. Instead, he joined a radical campus organization called the Student World Federalists.

Ballis came to Fresno in 1953. He was editor of the Valley Labor Citizen until 1966. He took a seminar on the philosophy of photography from Dorothea Lange, the photographer whose work documented poverty during the Great Depression.

He got his nickname after a Berkeley radio host said he handled questions "with grace and lightness — like an elf."

Beginning in the 1970s, Ballis led the grassroots group National Land for People in a so-called water war against large farmers. The organization filed a suit in 1976 to compel enforcement of the Reclamation Act of 1902 that required land owners who received subsidized irrigated water to be limited to 160 acres.

Legislation in the 1980s relaxed the limits.

In recent years, he followed protesters with his video camera, covering issues ranging from the treatment of animals to the war in Iraq.

"I Am Joaquin," a 16-minute film Ballis made in 1969, won several awards and was used in Chicano studies at universities. Some footage he shot during a Peace Fresno protest was included in Michael Moore's 2004 controversial movie "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Survivors include his wife, Maia; daughter Valerie Arriola of Fresno; son John Ballis of Sanger; a sister, and several grandchildren.