Observing an L.A. Photographer: sixth in a series
The photographer who produced some of the most iconic images of Los Angeles has been described as, among other things, an oddball, a recluse and a perfectionist. Max Yavno, who died in 1985, is currently featured (with many other photographers) in the Huntington Library's exhibit, "This Side of Paradise, Body and Landscape in L.A. Photographs." He has become an artist whose work is synonymous with Los Angeles, according to Huntington photo curator Jennifer Watts.
His black-and-white photographs stand out as some of the best visual records of the urban landscape of post-World War II Los Angeles. A documentarian at heart, Yavno took his camera to a variety of Los Angeles locales. He photographed complex street scenes (like one of his best-known images, "Muscle Beach, 1949"), vernacular architecture, ("Hot Dog, 1949" and "The Leg, 1949"), street life in immigrant communities, and storefronts whose graphic qualities appealed to his highly ordered sense of design. Watts, an unabashed Yavno fan, feels that the under-appreciated photographer "clearly loved this city. His images show the ethnic diversity and languid quality of life in Los Angeles." She goes on to say, "he was an amazing printer. He would spend hours in the darkroom perfecting a print. His work is representative of the old school craftsman approach to photography, the direct lineage to Edward Weston."
Yavno was born in New York City in 1911. Never formally trained, he began his professional photography career when he was hired by the WPA (specifically the Federal Theater Project) in the late 1930's to photograph urban New York scenes that could serve as models for theatrical stage sets. He also became a member of the Photo League, a group founded in 1936 which was a cooperative of professional and amateur photographers. Among them were documentary photographers Aaron Siskind and Consuelo Kanaga, who both played important roles in Yavno's photographic development. Siskind went on to world reknown as an abstract-expressionist photographer and became Yavno's lifelong friend. This period was key in the formation of Yavno's unique strengths as an image-maker — his mastery of technique and composition combined with his social awareness.
After World War II, during which he served as a photography instructor for the military in Southern California, Yavno settled in Los Angeles. He was contracted by Houghton Mifflin to do the photographs for "The San Francisco Book" with columnist Herb Caen in 1948, and then in 1950 "The Los Angeles Book" with newspaper columnist and author Lee Shippey. Many of Yavno's best-known images originally appeared in the Shippey book. Although now hopelessly outdated, "The Los Angeles Book" is a quirky look at aspects of the city in the late 1940's.
Guided around the city by his friend, social worker Beatrice Griffith, Yavno photographed people hanging out on the street in black and Latino neighborhoods. His subjects appear unaware of his presence, suggesting that Yavno spent enough time with them to earn their trust. His 1945 photograph "Chavez Ravine" is an important document of a Los Angeles minority community that was later made non-existent by urban development.
From 1954 to 1975, Yavno abandoned his personal work and produced only commercial photography. He may have been influenced to do this by photographer Edward Weston's struggles to make a living. "If Weston could not make a go of it with his world reputation, what the hell chance did I have?," he said in the 1981 book, "The Photographs of Max Yavno," by Ben Maddow. In the 60's, he purchased a building on Melrose Ave., between Fairfax and La Brea which housed his studio and living quarters. His advertising clients included Hunts and he also shot for Vogue, and Harpers Bazaar.
Former Los Angeles Times researcher Nina Rosenfield, who briefly dated Yavno in the 1970's, recalls that Yavno seemed to "love the life on the street outside his studio, perhaps because he himself was so isolated." She remembers that he always seemed to be worried about money and that while "his enthusiasm for his work was charming, he was pretty obsessive about it."
When he returned to personal work in the mid-70's, the art world had become far more accepting of the medium of photography. Yavno produced his second large group of Los Angeles images. He criss-crossed the city, photographing in neighborhoods from Watts to Venice. Notable images from the period are "Pinks, 1977," "Self Portrait, 1977," and "Cheap Gas, 1978." He was represented by G. Ray Hawkins, who ran one of the first influential Los Angeles photography galleries.
Around this time, Yavno became close with another Los Angeles photo gallery owner, Stephen White. Now a collector and curator, White told me recently that Yavno is "seen today mostly as a regional photographer." In terms of art market value, White feels that "Yavno's work hasn't grown in stature like others has." For a photographer who was so enamored of documenting the external life of his adopted city, Yavno was surprisingly solitary. He would go out to Tom Bergin's on Fairfax, but according to White, he was "reclusive, not close to many people."
Also during the 1970's, Yavno spent a good deal of time re-printing earlier images. He produced a new body of work while traveling to Egypt, Israel, Mexico, and Morocco.
After his death in 1985, the executor of his estate, Los Angeles industrial developer and photography collector Leonard Vernon, turned the bulk of Yavno's work over to MOCA. The museum mounted an exhibit, "The Permanent Collection, Max Yavno Photographs" in 1989. Richard Koshalek, then MOCA's director, said "Of the many locales in which Yavno pursued his career, Los Angeles was a prime focus for the artist's attention as he sought to record and pay tribute to its people, communities, cityscape, and geography."
A large part of Yavno's work ultimately landed at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Yavno prints can be found in a number of Los Angeles area collections including at the Huntington, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Michael Dawson Gallery and the Jan Kesner Gallery.
All photos by Max Yavno
Muscle Beach, 1949, copyright The Huntington Library, Art Collection and Botanical Gardens
Chavez Ravine, 1945, via The Michael Dawson Gallery