San Francisco

Max Yavno

California Palace of the Legion of Honor

In the late 1940s Max Yavno photographed San Francisco and Los Angeles, two cities in the midst of major physical and social changes. The New York born photographer, who had worked for the WPA and served as president of the Photo League, planned to photograph San Francisco’s diverse ethnic mix. However, on his first visit, he discovered the unique topography, architecture and climate, and chose instead to concentrate on the city’s physical appearance.

Yavno’s speciality was the expansive, panoramic view. He rendered the architecture as modular patterns of frame houses against one another. He compressed the steeply angled streets into two-dimensional planes, and made maximum use of the clear light to break his compositions into positive and negative space.

Los Angeles did not necessarily afford this kind of visual drama, but it did offer startling, sometimes ironic juxtapositions. A long shot of the city hall—the only “tall” building on the horizon—is framed by oil derricks in the foreground. And Venice’s muscle beach is interpreted as a frenetic mass of humanity and advertising, organized into a neat arrangement of horizontal forms.

Yavno also photographed Chicano youths and other urban inhabitants, Chinese funerals and cable cars with passengers jumping on and off. His people look like actors in a film noir drama, tugging at a cable car or standing silently, in a doorway.

In the early 1950s Yavno turned exclusively to commercial photography, and has returned only in the past five years to photographing Los Angeles. His recent black-and-white pictures are Hopperesque visions of silent building facades and gas stations glimpsed at night. Yavno’s vision remains a strong one. He combines journalistic lucidity with design, creating imagery that ex-tends beyond mere nostalgia.

The most impressive aspect of Yavno’s work, and the quality that sets him apart from many ’30s and ’40s photographers resurrected for nostalgic (and commercial) value, is a formal vision that is quite distinct. Yavno’s pictures are spatially precise, they bear comparison to photographs by Evans, Siskind and Callahan, but Yavno maintains his own style. Callahan’s compositions are often minimal while Yavno’s are filled with activity which is held together by an internal geometry. In this regard, Yavno’s sensibility is a logical precursor of the new topographic landscape attitude.

Hal Fischer