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  • Writer's pictureEmily Lavin

Award-winning Ark photographer Edward Elliot Karlan was ‘a face of the paper’


Edward Elliot Karlan, an award-winning freelance news photographer who for nearly 25 years documented life on the Tiburon Peninsula for The Ark, died Aug. 22 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco of complications from heart disease. He was 74.


Mr. Karlan’s first photo for The Ark appeared in the Aug. 11, 1999, edition of the paper, showing a line of fire trucks driving down Tiburon Boulevard as part of the annual “burn relay,” a fundraiser for the California-based Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation. Over the next 2½ decades, he became a ubiquitous figure in the community, instantly recognizable riding around town in his white 1984 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham with the custom license plate “FotoGuy.” Whether it was breaking news emergencies, downtown celebrations or Little League baseball games, Mr. Karlan could reliably be found on the scene, clad in jeans, a T-shirt and his signature multi­pocket photographer’s vest, intent on snapping the perfect shot for the paper.


“Everyone seemed to know Elliot as ‘The Ark photographer,’ and he’d been a public face of the paper for the past 25 years,” said Kevin Hessel, executive editor for The Ark since 2011. “Elliot really lived and breathed photography and found true joy in the way it allowed him to connect with others and with the community.”


Mr. Karlan was born Dec. 4, 1948, in the Bronx, the eldest of two sons to Sidney and Clara Karlan. His father worked as a chemist while his mother taught nursery school. He and his younger brother, Mitchell, were raised in Nutley, New Jersey, about 8 miles north of Newark.


Mitchell Karlan, who lives in Connecticut, remembered his brother as a “wildly energetic” kid.


“He was like a force of nature,” he said. “Very restless, always in motion.”


Growing up, Mr. Karlan loved music and taught himself to play drums and the guitar — no small feat, Mitchell said, as his brother was left-handed. He played in the band at his high school and formed his own rock ’n’ roll band on the side.


Upon graduating, Mr. Karlan enlisted in the U.S. Army, completing basic training in New Jersey and infantry training in Georgia, Mitchell said, before being sent to Fort Ord in Monterey County, which at the time was a deployment staging ground for soldiers heading to Vietnam.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Karlan served time overseas, but when he left the military, he found his way back to the Bay Area. Mitchell said landing in San Francisco in the late 1960s was an “enlightening experience” for Mr. Karlan after having spent his entire childhood on the East Coast.


“He fell in love with that area, and he never really left it,” he said.


Mr. Karlan was living in San Francisco’s Richmond District in 1978 when he met Taffy Dollard, who was a nursing student at the time. After pursuing a career in music — he had a band called “Bag Elliot,” Dollard said, in which he served as the bandleader, songwriter and drummer and played some rhythm guitar — Mr. Karlan had begun working as a mechanic. He’d been interested in cars since childhood.


The two met when Dollard brought her car to Mr. Karlan to repair a broken water pump.


“He was funny, he was kind, he was smart, he was optimistic,” Dollard said.


The two married and moved to Tiburon in 1981, and Mr. Karlan became the stepdad to Dollard’s daughter, April, who was about 6 years old when Dollard and Karlan first met.


“He immediately and wholeheartedly took on the role of parent,” Dollard recalled.


Their son, Weston, was born in 1983, and Mr. Karlan was immediately “fascinated and protective, sometimes too much so,” Dollard said, noting he could be a strict parent. However, he was unfailingly supportive of his kids’ interests, she said, particularly in music, athletics and art. He coached his son’s Tiburon Peninsula Little League baseball team for a couple of years in the late ’90s, winning the countywide majors tournament in 1997, their final seasons. Mr. Karlan went on to umpire for the league for another five years.


Mr. Karlan continued to work as a mechanic, opening an auto repair shop in San Francisco’s Mission District called the Car Doctor. He later operated a shop in the same neighborhood called Motor Car Ltd., Dollard said.


He was an active figure in his family’s Bel Aire neighborhood, said Tiburon resident Peter Brooks, who lived near Mr. Karlan and his family in the 1990s. He said Mr. Karlan was an early and dedicated member of the neighborhood men’s group, which at the time met regularly at the now-closed Milano restaurant.


Mr. Karlan was a leader in organizing annual hayrides in the neighborhood, an event that also featured ranchers and horses, Brooks said. Mr. Karlan would go door-to-door collecting money from neighbors to help fund the event and take care of securing the necessary permits.


“He was so stoked about it every year,” Brooks said.


Mr. Karlan was also known for driving his Cadillac slowly around the neighborhood late at night on Christmas Eve, the sound of sleigh bells coming from a speaker he attached to the car.


“Kids, if they were still up at 11 p.m., they would hear the sleigh bells,” Brooks said.


Mr. Karlan and Dollard divorced after 16 years together, though they went on to eventually maintain a close friendship. Mr. Karlan continued living in Tiburon for a bit after the divorce but also lived in San Rafael and Novato.


In late 2019, he underwent heart surgery and suffered major complications. Since then, he had been splitting his time between Novato and Dollard’s home in Tiburon, as she helped care for him. He had spent most of the last year living with her, she said.


He transitioned from working as a mechanic to photography in the 1990s.


“Our father had been a very avid amateur film aficionado and developed his own negatives in the kitchen, that sort of thing,” Mitchell Karlan said. “So I wasn’t surprised when (Mr. Karlan) developed an interest in photography.”


That’s also when Mr. Karlan started regularly going by his middle name, Elliot, asserting that while his first name fit for a mechanic, his middle name was better suited and more professional for a photographer, said Cindy Siciliano, owner of Cindy’s Hair Studio in Tiburon and Mr. Karlan’s friend for four decades. Whether friends or colleagues called him “Eddie” or “Elliot” was a telltale sign of how long they had known him.


Mr. Karlan began photographing weddings and other events and soon after began contributing to The Ark. That included shooting speaker portraits for Book Passage and events for now-U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael.


Over the course of his career, Mr. Karlan was also a regular contributor to Marinscope Community Newspapers and had photos appear in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Marin Independent Journal. His photos in The Ark earned him several awards from both the National Newspaper and California News Publishers associations over the years; he most recently earned a first-place National Newspaper Association win in 2018 for a Labor Day photo essay.


Through his assignments on the Tiburon Peninsula, he interacted with residents and town officials and employees daily, and he was tasked with photographing the occasional celebrity as well. He relished the variety that came with the job, Siciliano said.


“He loved the interaction with people and going to all different events, he loved that,” she said. “It wasn’t just the same thing all the time.”


His personality was part of what made him so good at his job, she said.


“He was just an outgoing, down-to-earth kind of person that everybody would feel comfortable with,” Siciliano said. “He was really interested in who you are.”


And he was quick to make friends with many of those he met on the job. Tom O’Neill, a former longtime Tiburon resident who still organizes the annual classic car show in Shoreline Park, noted he and Mr. Karlan met around town and struck up a friendly rivalry talking about cars and cameras. O’Neill said he’s partial to Nikons, while Mr. Karlan was a Canon guy.


“The relationship started as a bantering, kidding, teasing one over cameras,” he said. “We’d send each other pictures and I’d make some comment like, ‘You could never have gotten this picture with your Canon.’”


However, their friendship evolved after Mr. Karlan’s heart surgery in 2019, after which he was hospitalized for nearly four months. O’Neill said he sent Mr. Karlan a picture with a motivational message, which Mr. Karlan reportedly counted among the things that helped him get better.


“We developed a friendship where we both opened ourselves up to each other, and most people don’t do that very easily,” O’Neill said.


He called Mr. Karlan an “intellectual person” with a “wide-ranging, free-spirited mind” who was completely at ease in his own skin.


“I don’t know that I’ve known anybody who was any more satisfied or comfortable with himself,” he said.


While Mr. Karlan could sometimes come off as grumpy or cantankerous, Siciliano said, he was at his core a dependable friend who was fiercely loyal to those he cared about.


The two originally bonded over a shared interest in music and motorcycles; Mr. Karlan rode a Harley Davidson up until about 2015 and was for years an active member of a Harley Owners Group.


Whenever he had a break between assignments for The Ark, Mr. Karlan would stop by Siciliano’s salon to rest, charge his devices and, more recently, share the latest pictures or video of his three grandchildren. He’d also make it a point to pick up on any town gossip he could pass on to Hessel as potential stories for the paper, she said.


“He would always come to me and say, ‘Hey what’s going on, have you heard of anything?’ and he would be the first to know,” she said.


Mr. Karlan was like a big brother to her, Siciliano said; he was someone she could call at 2 a.m. just to talk and who always offered to help her out with anything she needed, whether that was designing invitations for a party or installing a new water heater in her salon.


“I always called him Mr. Fix It and my knight in shining armor because he came to my rescue all the time,” she said.


She had another nickname for him that used to make him laugh, she said — Mr. Know It All, “because he always thought he knew everything.”


While she said that could be frustrating at times, she also pointed out he was always quick to share his knowledge, teaching her all he knew about photography and even relying on her to sometimes serve as his back up on photo assignments.


Mr. Karlan also took on the role of mentor for Sander Leszczynski, who grew up in the Bel Aire neighborhood. Leszczynski noted that when he was a kid, Mr. Karlan was friendly with his mom and was always around photographing Little League and neighborhood events. During Leszczynski’s freshman year of high school in 2016, Mr. Karlan started teaching him about cars.


The work started out simple, with Mr. Karlan teaching Leszczynski to perform oil changes, and progressed to walking him through replacing the alternator on Mr. Karlan’s Cadillac. By the summer before his senior year, Leszczynski said, he was ready to purchase his first truck — “a real beater.” Mr. Karlan helped him find it, went with him to meet the seller and inspect the car and walked him through the purchasing process.


They did all the repairs and upgrades on the truck together — a welcome distraction as the COVID pandemic hit during Leszczynski’s senior year, he said.


The two would talk politics, Mr. Karlan’s time in the military, history and, of course, cars. Leszczynski noted Mr. Karlan loved to quote the 1970s TV show “Kung Fu.”


“He always referred to me as ‘grasshopper,’” Leszczynski said. “That was kind of our thing, he was sensei and I was grasshopper.”


Even after Leszczynski left for college — he’s currently working on his bachelor’s at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona — Mr. Karlan was just a text or a phone call away. Anytime he reached out to Mr. Karlan, a reply would almost always come within minutes.


“He always put other people first,” Leszczynski said.


Though Mr. Karlan’s 2019 heart surgery resulted in some health and mobility challenges, it didn’t affect his zest for life, said those who knew him— and it didn’t dull his passion for his job, as he continued to take on regular assignments for The Ark with his usual enthusiasm. Mr. Karlan would respond to assignments over email or via text within minutes with his signature phrase: “CID,” or “consider it done.”


“I feel like no job was too small for him; he thought every job he was sent to do was important,” Siciliano said.


His final photos for The Ark ran in the Aug. 16 issue of the paper and were indicative of the slice-of-life action he had so regularly captured on the peninsula over the past decades: a picture of teens working in a new community garden at the Belvedere-Tiburon Library; photos of residents enjoying one of Belvedere’s summer Concerts in the Park; and a shot of kids painting at an Art in the Park event at Paradise Beach Park.


Dollard said Mr. Karlan frequently told her how much he loved his job.


“He was always looking for that next great shot,” she said.


In addition to Dollard, Mr. Karlan is survived by his stepdaughter, April Wynkoop of Ashland, Oregon; his son, Weston Karlan of Las Vegas; and three grandchildren, Raina and Lemon McIntosh and Maddie Karlan.


Dollard said the family hopes to hold a memorial in the spring.


Reach Assistant Editor Emily Lavin, The Ark’s education and youth reporter, at 415-944-3841.

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