Only a couple of you reading this knew Fred Topalian. Fred opened a camera store in St. George, Utah two years before I moved down there from Provo, UT – in 1985. When I would travel to SG to work occasionally, while attending BYU, I would often stop into Camera Country on Bluff Street and buy film and camera equipment from Fred. When I moved to SG in 1985 I spent a lot of time at Camera Country, talking with Fred about all types of photography and running my personal strategy for becoming a full-time photographer past him. We where both raised in California, him in SoCal and me in NoCal, and while our personal lives weren’t that similar – our love of photography was. He had worked as a photographer in Las Vegas for awhile before moving to SG. He was 7 years older than me and had insights into the business of photography and life in general, that I always had appreciated.
Fred later moved Camera Country to St. George Boulevard, then years later built a custom commercial building farther east on SG Boulevard. The walls of his store were lined with old cameras he had collected, local photos, and in southern Utah his store became the go to location for all things photography. New and used equipment, lighting stands and strobes, tripods, bags, backdrops, and 1 hour processing – not to mention a source of information and experience. As I advanced in photography I met a number of people at his store that had a big influence on me – none bigger than the editor of St. George Magazine, Lyman Hafen. SGM began running my photos and articles (2 Covers) and even had a “wildlife page” dedicated to one of my images each issue. I owe my initial success in southern Utah to Fred, his friends and clients became mine.
Over the years we became fast friends. We went out shooting together exploring the nearby mountains and the Arizona Strip country, played golf, water-skied, drove quads around Pine Valley Mtn – and just had a good time. Fred was always an upbeat person, telling stories, and commiserating when things weren’t going right for either of us. When he left town on vacation or to learn about some new Noritsu 1 hour machine he was buying, I watched his store. He promoted me as a nature photographer and did everything he could to help me succeed – from slide film and processing at cost, to deals on equipment, and tips on business tactics. Even as late as 2010 he tried to put together a photography show for me to do in southern Utah for his old clients.
As the years passed our lives went in different directions, as they so often do. I moved north to Cache Valley, Utah and eventually opened a photography studio in Providence to go along with my freelance magazine work, while Fred married Kim in 1993 and settled into a happy, fulfilling life. They traveled together, worked together, and enjoyed their cabin at Pine Valley Mountain.
Digital photography eventually did in the 1-hour printing business, and online camera retailers made buying equipment cheaper elsewhere. After many decades in southern Utah, Fred eventually was forced to close Camera Country. But Fred continued on successfully, building homes and flipping houses in the hot SG housing market – and then he ran into health issues. Pancreatic Cancer isn’t kind or slow and it eventually claimed his life, just two weeks ago in St. George – surrounded by Kim and the kids and grandkids.
When I saw Kim’s Facebook post about his death I was deeply saddened. It had been a couple of years since I’d stopped into his home in Washington, next to St.George, to visit about our lives and catch up. For a decade after I had moved north whenever I was passing through for a photo safari in southern Utah, or on my way to California, I would stop by the store and we would go to lunch. He had stories about his kids, I had stories about mine. But as life got busier even those brief visits gradually stopped. A couple of years ago we visited on the phone – so I knew about his health issues. He did all he could to stay with Kim and the kids for as long as possible.
There was no cell phone technology back in the 80’s and 90’s – so quick grab images and selfies that are so common today were non-existent then. I looked through tens of thousands of images and found 2 of me – that Fred had taken, and one image of him and Kim that he had sent me as a Christmas Card – that thankfully I had kept. I wish I had an image of the two of us. One that Fred had taken was of me standing along a sandstone cliff where we were rappelling over the side shooting a great horned owl cave nest – one of my favorite images, taken in 1986. Thanks for not letting go of the rope, Fred.
Our friendship was stretched out over 35 years, and has traveled through the national and state parks and dusty back roads of southern Utah, but it ended for now with that Facebook post. I attended his wedding to Kim at Pine Valley Mountain in 1983 and shot a few wedding images of them, it was a typically beautiful blue-sky southern Utah day. Unfortunately, I missed his memorial service while in Colorado on a recent photo safari. I feel a bit guilty now of not having told him enough how grateful I was for his friendship.
Fred was a great friend to everyone, but was an especially loving husband to Kim and to their kids and grand kids. There is no doubt in my mind that is how Fred would have wanted to be remembered by everyone.
Goodbye my friend. BRP