SAN DIEGO — The subject appears to be a mechanomorph, a being part human and part machine: a hairless, high-domed head, quasi-Oriental features, broad shoulders and chest, hands grasping a huge piece of equipment positioned mid-body, like an automatic weapon supported by a confusion of tripod and trousered legs.
It's a self-portrait of photographer Max Yavno, his image reflected in the window of a store advertising "Revistas en espanol" and "Cold . . . " It is a banal but haunting--and memorable--photograph.
It introduces the 150 black-and-white photographs by Yavno on view at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park through Feb. 2. Executive Director Arthur Ollman organized the exhibition, entitled "Max Yavno: Poetry and Clarity," from the collection of Leonard and Marjorie Vernon of Los Angeles with the help of dealer of G. Ray Hawkins, also of Los Angeles. The museum has published a handsome portfolio of seven Yavno prints in lieu of a catalogue. This very strong show, unfortunately, is not scheduled to travel elsewhere.
Max Yavno, even his close friends felt, was something of a loner, unable to relate fully to other individuals. He was, perhaps, one of those personalities who best relate to others in general and from a distance. But his photographs are intimate and powerfully humanistic. His images, crowded with information, bring us into the scene, even of exotic environments like Cairo. It's as if he could concentrate so intensely that he created empathetic situations for us to occupy and enjoy. We truly see the world and its peoples through his eyes, clearly and sympathetically, but without sentimentality.
The photographer, who died in Los Angeles last spring, was born in New York in 1911. He would remain an urban person all his life and convey an urban energy in his work. He supported himself from the age of 16, when he began attending undergraduate, then graduate, courses in the social sciences. He married and began to teach himself photography in 1930. The marriage lasted four years; the relationship with the camera, for life.
As longtime friend and collaborator Ben Maddow commented in a lecture here, "His work was his love." In the late 1930s he worked as a photographer for the WPA and was president of the politically left Photo League. During World War II he was an Army Air Force photographer.
After his discharge, he moved to the West Coast. In 1948 he published "The San Francisco Book" with Herb Caen and in 1950 "The Los Angeles Book" with Lee Shippey. (Later publications were "The Wine Book" with Northern California food writer M. F. K. Fisher in 1962 and "Natzler Ceramics" in 1968.)
Significant recognition came in 1952 when Edward Steichen, director of the department of photography, purchased 19 Yavno prints for the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. The following year, under the sponsorship of Steichen and famed Carmel photographer Edward Weston, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1954 he began a 20-year career as a commercial photographer--a period ignored in the exhibition--but in 1975 returned to making personal and documentary photographs.
Ollman comments, "Max Yavno was a classicist. . . . He imposed certain formal strictures on his photographs that he held as axioms." Chief among them was that every image must be totally composed. He waited patiently for the decisive moment when naturally (even naively) artistic patterns would evolve during the normal flux of human activities. To this end the photographer, with his equipment, had to be invisible, to become an all-seeing but unseen eye, either at a distance or integrated into the environment so that subjects would not look into the camera and destroy the impromptu, unposed character of the moment recorded in film.
A case in point is the masterpiece "Muscle Beach" (1949) for which he waited by his tripod three Sundays in a row and made about 70 exposures. It is a crowded image, dense with human activity. Nothing can be removed from it and nothing added. It has the kinetic energy and the compositional rightness of a contemporaneous abstract Expressionist painting by Jackson Pollock.
After the exposure came a painstaking printing process to make photographs that are absolute artistic statements, unalterable.
The exhibition, although beautiful and important, is unmercifully crowded. A reluctance to leave out anything is understandable with work of this quality, but ultimately it denigrates the work and abuses visitors. There is no space for the eye to rest. A similar installation of small paintings or drawings would be a scandal. A no-nonsense but sensitive installation respectful of the work is far preferable to the inappropriate interior decoration the museum seems to favor.