Back when jumbo malts cost 25 cents and nobody worried about cholesterol, photographer Max Yavno planted his tripod on Muscle Beach and framed a vivid slice of America at Play. A stocky couple in bathing suits turn their backs to us to watch acrobats whizzing through the air above a big crowd of beach-goers. Bold storefront signs advertise popular refreshments, brilliant sunshine picks out tanned bodies, and the scene fairly bursts with the gung-ho optimism of 1949.
Yavno, who died in 1985, was at his best when he allowed the warmth and color of his poor and lower-middle-class subjects to dominate his shots. In a group of nearly 200 of his silver gelatin photographs bequeathed to the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art (where they are on view through Nov. 5), the images that linger in the mind are--in Yavno's words--"about the way people live and work and fight and love."
His more generalized city views, however, are memorable mostly as nostalgia trips (imagine, hardly any litter on a downtown San Francisco street!) and the arty studies of sun-and-shadow patterns on architecture were more strikingly done by others.
Born in New York in 1911, Yavno took up photography as a hobby while working as a clerk on Wall Street and attending college at night. In the late '30s, he was a member of the socially concerned Photo League and a photographer for the Federal Theater Project of the Works Progress Administration. His curious assignment for the WPA was to shoot urban scenes that might serve as models for stage sets.
Perhaps as a result, Yavno was, oddly, a documentary photographer whose best work has a stage-managed, theatrical look rather than the strict immediacy of the shot grabbed on the run. Even his typical palette of rich grays and blacks has a studied air. And his preferred method of working with a tripod meant waiting patiently for the moment when the atmosphere of a locale would crystallize into a single image.
During the late '30s and early '40s, Yavno worked in New York, training his view camera on such varied sights as signs underneath the Third Avenue El advertising 25-cent beds and 5-cent beer, fastidiously dressed painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi looking world-weary in his studio, and a little girl with puffy cheeks, bare knees and an adult, resigned expression who leans on a fence under a bare tree branch.
"Back Yard Baseball" is one of Yavno's most carefully composed, beautifully lit, wrong-side-of-the-tracks photographs from this period. In fact, it looks like a still from some forgotten three-hankie movie: A little boy standing on a patch of rubble-covered earth peers wistfully through a derelict fence at a junior slugger, taking a swing under banners of drying laundry.
The California connection came after Yavno was discharged from the Air Force, where he was a film and photography instructor during World War II. Remaining in Los Angeles, he sought out exotic elements of the landscape (like "Power Station, Redondo Beach," with its eerie nocturnal glow framed by stately towers) and ordinary folks going about their daily lives.
One of these people is "Old Man in Chair," a slum dweller whose massive head, raffish dress and proud posture hark back to 17th-Century peasant paintings by Louis Le Nain. Other subjects included members of the Mexican-American community, like the baby-faced, curly-haired young man whose jaw is gouged by knife scars or the two women on the street whose bodies tilt off balance as they laugh at a shared joke.
Yavno's longtime fascination with the busy typography and jangling messages of advertising signs also flowered in Los Angeles. Shot in his new crisp, sun-bathed style, commercial images like "Mickey Cohen Quits!" are vibrant testaments to a brash, go-getter culture. Collected in "The Los Angeles Book," published in 1950, these and other photographs painted a sparkling, complex image of the city.
During the '50s, Yavno embarked on a successful two-decade career in commercial and advertising photography, pioneering striking uses of color. But the itch to create socially relevant documents remained. After rediscovering the virtues of black-and-white film in 1975 while on vacation in Death Valley, he also returned to the urban subjects of his earlier work.
Unable to coast on sheer nostalgia value, the images from the last decade of Yavno's life permit the most sober appraisal of his style. Ultimately, his gift seems to have been a knack for finding telling detail and reassuring pattern in the density and vivacity of daily life.