In their own ways, Malibu residents have sought creative outlets to process the trauma of the Woolsey Fire. As The Malibu Times has documented over the past year, some chose to collaborate and put together art exhibits at private galleries—notably, at the Red Ladder Gallery. Cathy Rogers collected recipes for a cookbook, an homage to her previous experience with the Old Topanga Fire. The city worked with its artists of all media to put together a City Hall exhibition, “Radical Beauty, Malibu Rising: Reflections on the Woolsey Fire.”
Local commercial and fine art photographer Eric Myer was unsure of what he wanted to do.
“I think I felt sort of helpless and wanted to be able to use my skills to maybe do something,” he said in a phone call with The Malibu Times.
He prefaced the conversation with some background: He and his wife, Barbara, lost their home to a fire in Topanga many years ago and so, Myer said, “It was ‘always back in my head.”
The photographer then decided—only a week or so after the fire first hit Malibu—he wanted to capture the destruction and the real people it affected.
“This was a very specific moment in time in Malibu history where the fire had just done its damage and there were visual scars of it everywhere—destroyed homes—[and] within months it would be scraped.”
With the then-coming rainy season, Myer had to act fast.
“My biggest concern was how it would be received,” he explained. “That, although good, might be seen as insensitive.”
“I only wanted to do it for the right reasons or not do it at all,” the artist added.
He reached out to friends, who—to his surprise—were “eager and very interested.”
The project, which will culminate in a photography exhibit set to open next week, is a tribute to the families who lost everything.
“My goal with this show is to get out of the way of that,” he said.
The focus of the gallery will be on the large-scale panoramic photos of families’ destroyed properties. Accompanying the panoramas will be smaller photos of subjects holding objects rescued from the fire, something Myer explained as “the most insignificant [thing] has the most significance.” A third handful of images will feature more abstract photos, of the textures and “strange beauty” he found while photographing properties.
“I felt that it was important to reveal the authentic Malibu that I have known for 35 years and to help dispel the stereotype that the name Malibu often evokes,” Myer wrote in his artist statement. “Subjects represented a cross-section of my community, from young families to celebrities—whose losses ranged from multimillion-dollar mansions to mobile homes.”
“I got to be honest with you: It was intense to go to each one of these,” he reflected, later adding: “It was a very heavy thing, almost like being a war photographer.
“The way people dealt with this was quite varied. Some were clearly grieving. Others had quite a light, philosophical attitude about it,” he said.
Over the course of three to four months, he photographed 42 properties. Myer would head to the sites ahead of time to walk around and scout the best way to capture the panorama. Later, families would join him for a few hours—give or take—during which they would tell their story. Some stayed, some went immediately afterward, but Myer would keep shooting.
“It was probably quite cathartic for me,” he said. “The way I felt about it was that I was a witness validating their experience, their grief.”
He and his wife, whom Myer said was essential to the project, now prepare to debut his work to the public.
“I was doing other commercial projects, but luckily, in the last couple of weeks, the phone hasn’t rung for work,” he said of his work priorities. “And I’m glad because I’m all in on this.”
A significant portion of proceeds raised from the exhibit will go to The Malibu Foundation in support of its work “providing wildfire relief and addressing climate change,” Myers shared.
If all goes well, the photos may make a second appearance next year for a six-week show in Santa Monica sometime during spring 2020.
“Malibu After: Bearing Witness” opens on Tuesday, Nov. 5, with an opening reception from 5-9 p.m. at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue. The exhibit will also be open the next day, Nov. 6, from 1-8 p.m. For more information and to RSVP, visit malibuafter.com.
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