Widely known for his collectible images of “dunesmobiles” on Sleeping Bear Dunes, beachgoers at Clinch Park and waterfront villages during the 1950s and ’60s, 101-year-old Phil Balyeat’s life started out with success in sports, not photography.
But after a stint as a coach and teacher, he took the advice of his brother, who was also his physician, to pursue a less stressful occupation.
The decision to build a career capturing Northern Michigan’s beauty turned out to be a fruitful one. His postcard imagery helped shaped the state and national view of the Grand Traverse region during the post-war boom.
Balyeat’s century of life experiences sounds like something out of a movie. Born in Sparta in 1915, he was a high school football hero who also was quick at the quarter mile. He played football for Michigan State until an injury sidelined him, then became a track star at University of Michigan as part of a mile relay “dream team” in the late ’30s.
Balyeat says photography started out as a hobby, taking pictures of flowers and family. While teaching Navy recruits lifesaving and swimming skills during World War II, he took advantage of opportunities to learn the skills he needed to make it a career.
“All the time I could spare during the service, I spent in the photo shops and darkrooms at each of the bases,” he says. “Usually there was an old enlisted man in charge of each darkroom. Those are the kind of guys who gave me the information I needed.”
Balyeat married Onalee in 1941 and they raised three children. He brought his young family to Traverse City, where he and Onalee opened the Camera Shop on Front Street in 1950 after borrowing $500 from relatives.
During an era when postcards reigned as the way to stay in touch with friends and relatives during summer vacation, Balyeat grew his business as a freelance photographer by selling postcards to area hotels and businesses.
Using a 4-by-5 Speed Graphic camera, he captured the essence of Northern Michigan — from the building of the Mackinac Bridge to convertibles on Sleeping Bear Dunes, and scenery from Ludington and Frankfort to Tahquamenon Falls and Pictured Rocks.
Many say his eye for scenic photography helped spur tourism in Traverse City.
“What he’s really known for is capturing the flavor of Northern Michigan,” says Don Harrison, a vintage postcard collector and dealer. “I saw a lot of Phil’s work and sought him out about 15 years ago because he was one of the few remaining active photographers from this era. … He had an excellent eye, the colors were brilliant, and the postcards were well-received by the people that bought them — and now they’re collectible.”
Balyeat says his happiest memories are from when he owned the Camera Shop and those days when he was free to explore the outdoors. “I was the only scenic photographer in Northern Michigan at that time. I … still have people every day showing me a postcard they bought with my signature on the bottom.”
Balyeat credits his long life to good genes and staying active. His mother lived to 102 and his brother Gordon, who was a physician at Blodgett Hospital in Grand Rapids, lived to 97.
He still carries a camera and has embraced digital photography.
“I have a digital camera that fits in my pocket and never miss the chance to take another picture,” he says. “There were a lot of dreary years of working in the darkroom, so the digital camera world is quite refreshing, to tell you the truth.”