By Pablo Capra
Photo by Katie Dalsemer
“Lower Topanga: Before the Bulldozers,” is a very timely title for David Blattel’s photo exhibit at the Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery because State Parks began demolishing the first houses in Lower Topanga earlier this month.
Blattel, who has been shooting in Lower Topanga for the last year, vividly captures a way of life that is disappearing fast. In fact, the photo exhibit already evokes a profound sense of loss and nostalgia since several of the people in his photographs have been relocated and their houses are now boarded up.
“It’s really a shame that the Lower Topanga community is being destroyed; and not just because it’s tightknit, but because it’s also unique and can never be duplicated,” Blattel said.
The exhibit’s opening reception on March 29 was crowded with longtime Topanga residents and newcomers interested in finding out more about this unique community.
“We had a great turnout!” Blattel said, “I didn’t know what kind of a response to expect, but the people received it well.”
Longtime Topangan Marsha Maus said she thought the exhibit was “amazing, especially the pictures of the people because they’re so expressive!”
She called Blattel’s approach to the subject matter “not glamorous, but sensitive.”
Maus also enjoyed meeting residents of Lower Topanga.
“I was impressed by their fierce sense of community, the way they care for each other. It reminded me of the hippie heyday in Topanga, or of communities I’ve seen in Hawaii.”
Ami Kirby, another longtime Topangan, said she felt a sense of community among everyone at the gallery as they all shared in the “uniqueness and wonder” of Lower Topanga.
“I wasn’t aware of who was from upper Topanga and who was from Lower Topanga. There was a just a feeling of fellowship with the entire Canyon. A feeling of family,” she said.
A young woman at the opening said she had moved to Topanga less than a year ago and wanted to learn more about its history and culture.
Nine Lower Topanga poets were present at the opening to read from their book, “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon.”
The reading brought to life the images in Blattel’s photographs: a young poet writing in a greenhouse, an old writer getting out of bed, a jazz trumpeter playing at home, a guitar builder and his dog, an intimate portrait of a beautiful old lady.
Together, photographs and poetry attempted to transport the audience to Lower Topanga.
James Mathers, a lifelong Topanga resident, prefaced his poem with a humorous account of how Topanga had changed since his childhood.
“Sometimes in life it’s necessary be in a place where you can just lie in bed for a year and pluck your guitar to get over a depression or to go through a change. Topanga used to be one of those places, and I feel fortunate to live in the last piece of that. There are millions of people in this city who are very good at doing what they do, but there have to be at least a few people who know how to do nothing,” he said.
As part of a resistance effort to stay in Lower Topanga for as long as possible, Mathers said, “I wouldn’t trade my trailer in Lower Topanga for a house with a pool in Bel Air!”
Bond Johnson played a classical piece on piano called “Tender Sorrows,” by Rameau, to express his feelings. Dave Hayward, on trumpet, and Frank Lamonea, on guitar, performed Lamonea’s ominously titled song “Sunset,” just as the sun was setting behind the Topanga hills.
After the reading, gallery co-owner David Green praised the photographs and poetry for “taking our minds off of the war in Iraq for a short while, which everyone is distressed about on some level.”
Blattel’s photo exhibit has been extended and will now be on display until April 19, when Blattel will have a second reception at the gallery from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. He will talk about the photographs, his cameras and techniques as well as his experiences shooting in Lower Topanga.
The Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery is located on 120 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard in Pine Tree Circle. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.,Tuesday through Saturday. For more information call (310) 455-3991.
Photographer David Blattel, seated, with, from left, pianist Bond Johnson, Pablo Capra, Julie Howell, David Green and David Hayward at the Howell-Green Fine Art Gallery for the opening of his show “Lower Topanga: Before the Bulldozers.”