Sharing Her View of Life for the First Time

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Each day, Meta Rosenberg goes to the ocean to walk, to breathe in and otherwise absorb what she can no longer see. The former director/executive producer of "The Rockford Files" says she feels no bitterness about becoming blind, for it is her sight--not beauty--that is slipping away from her.

For the past three years, macular degeneration has claimed her vision. She can no longer see the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Eugene Smith and Andre Kertesz that hang on the walls of her home in Benedict Canyon. But she can feel their presence.

Nor can she see life through the viewfinder of her Leicas as she once did. That part of her life is over, but another has just begun. At age 86, Rosenberg's photos are being shown for the first time. The world she once saw is reflected in an exhibit at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica.

Throughout her career and travels, Rosenberg kept a camera close at hand. Street scenes captured from Los Angeles to Paris are among 30 black-and-white images included in the show, which runs through Thursday.

"It never occurred to me to show my work," she says. "I never thought of becoming a professional photographer. I was just interested and had fun taking photographs and loved the fact that people responded to them."

Rosenberg was one of Fetterman's first customers when he opened his gallery about 10 years ago. She impressed him with her knowledge and appreciation for photography, so he was curious, but skeptical, when she mentioned that she had a few prints of her own that she would like to show him.

"We get inundated with portfolios," he says. "Everyone wants to be a writer, everyone wants to be a musician, everyone wants to be a photographer, but great talent is thinly spread."

Fetterman, however, was so impressed by her work that a few months ago, he contacted her to ask if she might donate some of her work for an auction benefiting art programs in public schools. She gave two, one of which was sold for $3,000. Fetterman then called again asking if she would like her own show.

Most of the images are street scenes taken locally and across Europe: a fiddler performing in front of a market on Fairfax Avenue, elderly men sleeping on the streets of Paris, a gondolier maneuvering through brick canyons in Venice.

Among her favorite subjects are children. "You get an immediate response of a kind of humanity from small children that you don't get from adults," Rosenberg says. "They are absolutely themselves in front of the camera. There is no facade."

A 1978 photo taken in Paris shows a girl standing before a bakery display window. The girl's attention, however, is not upon the sweet offerings. Instead, she stares at her reflection.

It is not unlike the way Rosenberg viewed the world as a child, peering past the sugared coatings. By age 6, she was sitting with her father, who worked in real estate, as he read to her from "The History of English Literature."

Rosenberg graduated from Hollywood High School at age 15, skipping three grades. She wanted to study at Wellesley or Smith College. When her mother insisted that she stay closer to home and attend UCLA, Rosenberg refused and went to work at a Hollywood bookstore.

She later became a story editor in the literary department at 20th Century Fox and in the early 1940s moved to Paramount. "There were no women executives at that time," she says, "so I was kind of a freak, but because I was young enough and arrogant enough, I got along."

She wanted to become a producer, so she went to Buddy De Silva, who was running Paramount at the time, and made her interest known. "He looked at me and said, 'You can't imagine the difficulty I have explaining to the people in New York what you're doing here in the first place. You can't be a producer."

So she quit. Rosenberg took time off from her career to raise a daughter whom she and her late husband, George Rosenberg, adopted.

Later, she returned as a talent agent in her husband's agency. One of her clients was James Garner--an association that would become an important one in her life.

Garner, who had starred in "Maverick" before going into movies wanted to return to television. When they saw the scripts for the pilots of "The Rockford Files," Garner asked Rosenberg to be executive producer.

The series, which ran from 1974 to 1980, succeeded in large part, she says, because Garner was so convincing in the role of reluctant hero. She continued to work as a Hollywood consultant before retiring 12 years ago.

In the years since--until her eyesight began to fail--Rosenberg continued to shoot photographs and to read, her two great passions.

That her work in photography should be discovered late in life is not surprising to longtime friend Ben Halpern, who owns three of Rosenberg's prints.

"Her work is poetic and deeply stirring," he says.

The show of her work, contained in one of the gallery's three rooms, reflects a world she can no longer see. But that does not dampen her appreciation for this new beginning that has arrived late in life.

She knows each of the images well. She remembers them as she remembers the beauty of the ocean as she walks along the shore each day.

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