Nearly every day for a year and a half, Pamela Mayers-Schoenberg woke up at 7 a.m. and traveled along one of Los Angeles’ longest streets, Vermont Avenue. She’d snap photos of the people on the street, capturing scenes from the various distinct neighborhoods. These photos are on display at the dnj Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica through May 31.
For Mayers-Schoenberg, 44, who also owns dnj, this is her first exhibition of her own work at the gallery. She chose to showcase her “The Vermont Project,” which she completed in 1998, because she wanted to educate people about the rich cultures that exist within the city. “People don’t travel enough in Los Angeles,” she said. “I started a more educational component to my gallery. I thought my project would be a good addition.”
The Vermont Avenue exhibition includes 50 black-and-white photos of Harbor City, South Central (now known as South Los Angeles), Hollywood, Koreatown, and Los Feliz, all taken along the 23-mile street.
Mayers-Schoenberg documented Muslim men praying in a mosque, products on display at an Asian grocery store, Latino children inspecting plants in a garden and African-American men handing out literature about the 12 tribes of Israel. There are pictures of boys warming up for a jog, a couple dancing at an outdoor restaurant, customers at a food truck, churchgoers standing with a priest and kids coloring in a classroom.
“I wanted to choose a very long street that has many different sections of people,” she said. “If you go along Vermont, you see different communities. You get these parts of Los Angeles that are definite neighborhoods.”
She also wanted to educate herself about Los Angeles. The Cincinnati native was struck by the city’s diversity when she moved to L.A. in 1995, and she said the project allowed her to meet new people. “In Ohio, it’s not multicultural at all,” she said. “It was a lot of fun for me.”
Over the 18 months of the the project, Mayers-Schoenberg reached out to local organizations and groups in the various areas she planned to visit. She started the work after receiving an artist’s grant from the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. One of the highlights of the project for her was working in South Central over the course of six months during the 18 month period.
“I really immersed myself into the society,” Mayers-Schoenberg said. “People are afraid of South Central sometimes. A lot of what I saw was normal. It’s not as different as you would think.”
The work has previously been exhibited at Los Angeles City College, the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Public Library in Exposition Park, the Korean Youth and Community Center and the Harbor City/Harbor Gateway Chamber of Commerce. Many of the venues exhibiting the work are along Vermont Avenue. In 2008, in response to another work of hers called, "Boys," Los Angeles Times art critic Leah Ollman wrote, “Mayers-Schoenberg’s photographs serve as honest character sketches of young people negotiating a balance between vulnerability and toughness.”
During some of the time that she was working on the project, Mayers-Schoenberg was pregnant with her first child. She also married noted attorney E. Randol Schoenberg during that time.
She started as a photographer in the 1980s and received a master of arts from Mills College in 1994. Quoting Diane Arbus, whom she was influenced by, Mayers-Schoenberg said, "I felt that the camera would give me a license to look at people. If you stare at somebody across the street, they ask why you’re staring at them. If you have a camera, it’s kind of OK.”
Prior to working on the Vermont Avenue pieces, she lived in Israel for five months and took pictures of the Ethiopian Jews living there. “The government of Israel gives the Ethiopians caravans to live in, and another caravan to watch their kids while they worked. They had a whole community. Every other day, I went to either photograph them or talk to professors about my work.”
In addition to working as an artist, Mayers-Schoenberg has taught at L.A.-area schools and educational institutions, including Venice High School, Etz Jacob Hebrew Academy, the North Valley Jewish Community Center and Skirball Cultural Center.
These days, Mayers-Schoenberg focuses on running her gallery, which she opened in 2007, and looking after her three children, two in high school and one in elementary school.
Mayers-Schoenberg, who lives in Brentwood, is now most interested in organizing shows. However, creating the work still holds a special place in her heart. “You can learn a lot through photography,” she said. “It’s like living history. Instead of reading a book or newspaper, it’s figuring out your own opinions and learning and exploring. Even when you look at art and appreciate it, you think about things in a different way than the norm. It gives you a different way of understanding the world.”