PRINT September 1981


Heinecken and The Photography of Max Yavno

Heinecken, edited by James Enyeart, Friends of Photography in association with Light Gallery, 1980, 158 pages.

IN HIS INTRODUCTORY STATEMENT to this volume, Robert Heinecken acknowledges that reproductions of his work can only function as “bare diagrams of already esoteric ideas or, at best, oblique reflections of the actual items.” Recognizing this limitation, Heinecken and his publishers have attempted to fashion something more visceral: sequences of “rich, non-linear sensations.”

Heinecken surveys a little over a decade of work—the years between 1963 and 1976—in which the artist established himself, to use one of his favorite terms, as a self-styled “guerrilla.” Though the female form exists as a central motif in his art, Heinecken’s oeuvre developed in a pluralistic manner, catapulting from small ink transfers and magazine collages to hanging film transparencies, from installation and sculpture to magazine photograms, and culminating in the mid-seventies with photo-emulsion works on linen. More than any photographer of his era, Heinecken (whose work contains only the “residual actuality” of the photographic image) expanded the horizons of the medium, pushing photography into relationships with other media and into confrontation with the medium’s vernacular functions in advertising and mass culture. The founder of UCLA’s prestigious photography program, Heinecken also attained prominence as an important educator; this book evidences his bipartite role in the photographic community.

Though beautifully printed and elegantly designed, the book rarely conveys the dimensionality or the historical impact of Heinecken’s work. Most of his art was conceived from existing printed imagery, but ironically, when transposed back into print, it loses the tension between personal eroticism, public pornography, and social comment on which it so ambiguously rests. A more flexible design, with installation shots, variation in the scale of reproductions, and even a few foldouts might impart a clearer sense of the work’s visual intent, by reducing everything to the same size, and consequently assigning everything equal value, Heinecken’s “guerrilla” posturing acquires a rather tame appearance.

Interestingly, the writing functions much like Heinecken’s anatomic puzzle pieces from the mid-sixties; essays by six writers (including John Upton, William Jenkins, and Charles Hagen) run concurrently on the pages, necessitating some flipping back and forth but remaining capable of forming an intelligible whole through the various ways they can be read. There is a good deal of formal analysis, and the sections that feature Heinecken’s own comments are particularly illuminating.

The only drawback to this multiperspective text is an absence of a consistent overview. Much of the writing was culled from older essays, and subsequently it lacks a retrospective-style analysis that could relate Heinecken’s art to time and place. Conspicuously absent are discussions on the interplay between photography and other visual arts, and acknowledgment of the southern California culture that has greatly influenced Heinecken’s ideas.

Designed as both esthetic object and documentary record (16 pages are devoted to bibliography, chronology, and collections), Heinecken is only partially successful in fulfilling each purpose. But the book, published in a signed and limited edition of 2,000, is obviously intended for viewers already conversant with this photographer’s art and reputation, who can fill in the blanks.

The Photography of Max Yavno, photographs by Max Yavno, text by Ben Maddow, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981, 122 pages, $19.95 paper.

Featuring 85 prints and a text by Ben Maddow, The Photography of Max Yavno is an oversized, luxuriously produced volume; it showcases Yavno’s work with a good deal more flourish than it may necessitate, or for that matter can comfortably bear. The 70-year-old photographer, rescued from oblivion during the past decade by photo dealers in pursuit of vintage material, is more than a nostalgic footnote to photo history, however; the pictures he produced in the 1940’s, termed “sociological formalism” by Maddow, potently fuse painterly design and left-leaning, Photo League social perspective.

In his strongest pictures Yavno develops a marvelous, distinctively American image, unique also for its visual intelligibility and sophistication. Muscle Beach, 1949, perhaps Yavno’s most famous photograph, depicts a jumble of bathing-suit-clad humanity organized into a strong arrangement of horizontal forms. It took three Sundays and seventy exposures to make, a testament to Yavno’s craftsmanship and perseverance.

The problematic aspect of Yavno’s work, nevertheless, is that few pictures attain the originality and social description of Muscle Beach; most remain simply well-crafted images. Based on this volume and two recent exhibitions, Yavno, in fact, appears rather limited, proficient at a single, stage-like panoramic style.

In the early 1950s, after making the photographs for books on San Francisco and Los Angeles, economic concerns forced Yavno to turn to commercial photography. He took up his own work again in 1975, and over half this book is devoted to new images made in Los Angeles, New York, Jerusalem, and Cairo. These photographs, as if caught in some curious time warp, begin where Yavno left off in the 1950s. Writing about Los Angeles, the photographer comments on “the sheen, the glamour and the marvelous fanfare . . .”, but what he shows, in somber, classically printed black-and-white imagery, is utterly the opposite, a Hopperesque vision offering little insight into contemporary realities, either social or formal. The subjects Yavno selects—a boxing knockout, a primitive hand-lettered sign in Watts, pawn-shop advertisements—are icons of thirties and forties photography. In exotic Middle Eastern settings, the ultra-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, or the Arab markets—pictorial content that lends itself more easily to a “timeless” sensibility—Yavno’s vision appears more compatible with the subject matter.

Ben Maddow’s essay is heavily dependent on unnecessary formal descriptions and not-very-interesting anecdotes; the author—an old friend of Yavno’s—may have been a bit at a loss as to what to write. Maddow’s superb biography of Edward Weston was drawn from a wealth of material, and Max Yavno does not offer the quantity of work, written diaries, romantic encounters, and posthumous mythologizing from which to fashion a vibrant story. In an interview at the back of the book, Maddow tries to elicit responses from Yavno regarding some elementary philosophical considerations and such past experiences as his tenure as president of the Photo League in New York and his friendships with other photographers. Even here, in direct conversation, the photographer doesn’t have much to say.

Yavno is of the same generation as Siskind and Callahan, and showed as much ability and promise in his work of the forties as they did in theirs. But despite the consistency of his “sociological formalism” and the opulent presentation it receives in this book, Yavno’s photographs lack the depth that emerges from practice, the application of vision that eventually grows into a mature statement. Siskind achieved this with his graffiti photographs, Callahan accomplished it on Cape Cod. Yavno, minus two decades of experience, never seems to have had the chance.

Hal Fischer