"Photographing Topanga from the Rodeo Grounds Up"
by Carole Merritt
Photos by David Blattel
(Photos of Blattel by Carole Merritt)
Photographer David Blattel is fulfilling his dream of capturing Topangans in the act of being Topangans, a project he plans to compile into a book.
After 20 years as a commercial photographer with clients like Harley-Davidson, Disney, General Motors and Mattel, Blattel says, “What I’ve been doing for a living is creating shots from beginning to end…in other words I’m taking something and manipulating it and creating what I want out of it. On this [project] I’m trying to take what’s there and show that. And it’s a whole different aspect of what I’m used to.”
Now he looks forward to expanding his capabilities as a photographer by adding editorial aspects to his work as he captures the life and landscape of the canyon,
We decide to meet at Mollie Hogan’s Wildworks deep in the heart of Paradise Lane to continue talking and shoot a few photos. There, surrounded by 40 or so animals in cages, we meet Hogan and volunteer Larry Mann, former owner of Envy, a mountain lion now in residence.
Hogan, who founded Wildworks in 1995 to care for some of the animals she raised and trained at the Los Angeles Zoo, guides us among the cages.
Blattel deftly photographs Sneakers, a ferocious hissing serval (an African wildcat), and a 13-year-old purring mountain lion named Phoenix, who shreds old phone books and licks our hands under Hogan’s watchful eye. Then there is Lucy, the normally nocturnal prairie dog, who comes out to eye the strangers in her midst.
Hogan coaxes Tara, a red- tailed Hawk with a 45-inch wingspan, out of its cage onto a metal bar where it can view the sky and spread its wings. Blattel crouches and snaps away. All the while Hogan gently intersperses her philosophy of preserving wildlife and their habitat as key to preservation of our planet’s livability. We leave Wildworks with dozens of photos and a promise to return.
As we walk back to our cars, Blattel says he’s amazed how well the animals appear to be even though they are in captivity. “Mollie seems to speak their language and they respect her.”
Later that same day Blattel and I sit down at his home near the state park to talk about his passion and his profession.
“When I graduated from high school I had no inkling of what I wanted to get into. I [had] enjoyed photography in high school and so I decided to enroll in photography class at LA Trade Tech.” The teacher told the class the first year was going to be working with a 4x5 view camera, the kind where you put the cloth over your head. “I thought he was joking and that no one had used those cameras since the 30s and 40s -- and I fell in love with it,” said Blattel.
His 4x5 camera is among the several cameras he demonstrates as we talk about his career spanning 20 years. He worked with Harley-Davidson on their calendars. And then there was sky diving and free-fall photography. He asks me if I’ve ever heard of base jumping? When I nod negatively, he explains, “It’s where they jump off of cliffs and bridges. I was with the first group in 1978 – nine times off of El Capitan in Yosemite – in my crazy days.”
Jumping less after the birth of his son in 1990, Blattel said he started “making mistakes.” Unable to stay current, he gave up skydiving when his daughter was born in 1994.
But his photography, which also includes work for Honda, St. Jude Medical and Amgen, in addition to the companies previously mentioned, has continued to thrive.
Blattel describes his Topanga project as a work in progress. “I’m hoping that over time people will start recognizing me so that it will break the ice, so they’ll be more apt to let me take pictures of them,” said Blattel. “I think it’s just going to take a lot of communicating. By getting my face known by people, I’ll have a much easier time.”
We head to Pine Tree Circle – another aspect of life in the canyon -- stopping to photograph a traffic accident, and wind up at Howell Green Fine Art and Framing in Pine Tree Circle where he photographs David Green at work cutting a matt.
The following weekend Blattel and I head down to lower Topanga to take some pictures. Pablo Capra, a 22 year-old aspiring fiction writer, greets us. A 20 year-resident of lower Topanga, Pablo is the son of Bernt Capra, acclaimed director of the 1990 film Mindwalk. We meet brother Lucas, born in this community, who is off to work as a sound engineer in a club. Bernt, backlit by the western sun, is salting strips of cod in a sizzling frying pan.
Pablo takes us walking along overgrown paths to meet the neighbors: visitor Jean Louis Bartoli of Corsica giving himself a facial mask (as only a Frenchman would or could), resident Claude Bal, a sculptor, and designer Gustav Alsina who kindly shows us his cottage.
Blattel didn’t think much of Lower Topanga before going there. “I thought maybe they had had it too easy over the years. And I knew they were going to have to be out within six months or so and I wanted to document it. “But after being introduced to people down there he realizes they have a special community.
This is a living environment created by the residents. But there is an end looming as the state seeks to relocate the residents for a park. “Most of them live frugally,” Blattel said. “I don’t know how many of them are going to exist in other areas. It’s going to be a radical shift in their lives – compensation will get them by for a couple of years but then….” Blattel shakes his head. “Some of them have lived there for 30 years. There will never be anything like it again,”
Blattel captures the lingering sunset and will return again. He will become familiar in Topanga as he captures life in the Canyon. “I know I’ve already stepped into two environments that don’t exist anywhere else.”
What started out for David Blattel as an idea to break through the constraints of commercial life, has become a passion, as it evolves into a photographic story of Topanga.