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Ready for a close-up

Marvin Rand is primed for a star turn after years behind the camera.

September 01, 2005|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

IT'S 10 a.m. in Los Feliz. Marvin Rand, a small, dapper man, adjusts his tripod and Swiss-made Sinar camera, then takes a few gazelle-like leaps down a steep hill, where he will capture the essence of a house from behind and below it.

Rand, 80, is doing the photos as a favor for longtime friend Realtor Crosby Doe. It's one of dozens of activities that pack his schedule, taking time from what some say he ought to be doing at this stage of life: talking and writing about his amazing body of photographic work, which documents 55 years of Los Angeles architectural history.

In the rarefied field of architectural photography, Rand is one of a handful of masters who have perfected both the art and the craft. Any good photographer can record the outlines of a building. The great ones capture emotion and insight; their photos reveal a dimension and beauty that most people wouldn't notice even if they were at the structure, seeing it with their own eyes.

In his spare, whitewashed Venice studio, Rand stores thousands of unique images of 20th century California structures -- many of them now gone or long since redesigned; some of them iconic landmarks that have symbolized this city for the rest of the world.

He has documented the birth of such projects as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, amassed what some consider the finest photo collection of work by Greene & Greene, and once spent five years shooting the Watts Towers, grid by grid. He has been awarded and honored, his photos published around the world.

But despite all this, Rand has lived almost his entire professional life in the shadow of a man born 15 years before him, the architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Shulman's photos of postwar Modern dwellings helped put California architecture on the map. He is celebrated, a star, a name known in art as well as architecture circles.

By contrast, Rand has something of an image problem. "Who's Marvin Rand?" asks a former photo curator at one of L.A.'s major museums. The question is echoed by others who may know Rand's name, but say they're not all that familiar with his work. Arthur Ollman, director of San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts, suggests in jest that "Rand has played Salieri to Shulman's Mozart."

That may soon change. Rand has decided that after decades of being "relatively silent," it's time for him to "come out." With three books soon to be published, he could undergo something of a revival even before he's felt the first flush of fame.

The first, "Greene & Greene" (publication date Sept. 15), is devoted to Rand's loving documentation of early Pasadena Craftsman homes built by brothers Charles and Henry Greene. (Rand has done three books on their work since 1959, but he calls this the most lavish.)

Scheduled for fall 2006 is his book on another early California architect, Irving J. Gill, whom Rand calls "the world's first Modernist" -- a genius ignored by developers who preferred buildings with "curlicues."

The third and possibly most historically important volume will be a biography and retrospective of the entire body of Rand's work; its publication date is not set. All will be published by Gibbs Smith.

Rand is "unique -- one of the great architectural photographers of the century," says Robert H. Timme, dean of the USC School of Architecture. "He has a wonderful sense of light and mood, which only the great ones have."

Rand may not be famous, Timme says, because he hasn't "taken the time to put together a book of his contributions -- not just photos, but also his theories and beliefs. He's got to talk about all that. His work needs to be recognized for its excellence."

In fact, few people outside the architecture community have heard of Rand. Those who know of him tend to lump him with Shulman -- as if the two were contemporaries and as if comparisons must be made.

"We are not contemporaries," Rand insists. "Shulman is 15 years older and started photographing in the '30's. I didn't start until the '50s -- after college and the Army and a few years of other work. So while we photographed some of the same things, I come at it from a totally different place. There is no similarity between us."

Rand, an Art Center College of Design graduate, is a hands-on perfectionist who knows what he wants and feels he has to do it all himself to get it right. He doesn't employ any staff or assistants.

He travels solo, takes all his own photographs and produces them in his studio with his "own little hands." He says he finds it difficult to sell himself as if he were a product rather than an artist.

Shulman, in contrast, has always utilized assistants to help with photography and photo processing. He calls himself a world class "merchandiser" of his work, constantly expanding and cross-propagating his web of contacts to get maximum mileage from his talents.

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