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Marvin Rand dies at 84; photographer cataloged L.A. architectural history

February 20, 2009|Elaine Woo

Marvin Rand, a photographer whose images captured more than five decades of Los Angeles' architectural history, including landmark works by Irving Gill, Charles and Henry Greene and Watts Towers creator Simon Rodia, died Saturday at his Marina del Rey home. He was 84.

The cause was heart disease, according to his son Peter.

Among Rand's most eye-catching photographs are his images of the circular Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood and the minimalist Hunt House in Malibu. He recorded the intricate details of Rodia's Watts Towers in a painstaking 1,500-photo survey for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. His extensive documentation of three of California's most important architects resulted in the books "Greene & Greene" (2005), about the legendary masters of the Craftsman period, and "Irving J. Gill: Architect 1870-1936" (2006), about the pioneering Modernist.

Although he operated in the shadow of his more famous rival, the noted architectural photographer Julius Shulman, Rand was an artist with the camera, admired for his grasp of the interplay among form, line and light in the structures he caught on film.

"Rand is a genius when he reads the lens behind the black cloth," California architectural historian Esther McCoy wrote of Rand shortly before her death in 1989. "He is one of a half-dozen photographers who have set the standards for this relatively new profession."

An honorary member of the American Institute of Architects, a rare distinction for a photographer, Rand worked with many of today's cutting-edge architects from the beginning of their careers and kept pace with them through the years. His client list is a who's who of architects past and present, including Charles Eames, Louis I. Kahn, Craig Ellwood, Cesar Pelli and Frank Gehry.

The son of a furniture maker and a clothing designer, Rand was born in Boyle Heights on Dec. 26, 1924, and attended Roosevelt High School. He studied photography at Los Angeles City College until 1943, when he entered the Army Air Forces. He served as an aerial photographer during World War II.

After the war he enrolled at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (before it moved to its present location in Pasadena) and joined a circle of avant-garde artists and designers, including Saul Bass, Alvin Lustig, Lou Danziger, and Charles and Ray Eames. Through this network he met McCoy, who would launch him on his career in architectural photography.

In 1953, a few years after his graduation from Art Center, Rand photographed the interiors of a Pacific Palisades house as a favor for a friend, industrial designer Duke Russell. McCoy asked to see the photographs and was so impressed that she got them published in a home magazine. As Rand recounted in Daniel Gregory's introductory essay in "Greene & Greene," McCoy "made me a believer in architecture."

By 1954 he was receiving his first major commissions, which included photographing the Capitol Records Tower for the Welton Becket architecture firm.

During this period he also began to document the work of Gill and the Greene brothers, producing many of the photographs that McCoy would use in her 1960 book, "Five California Architects," which was instrumental in focusing worldwide attention on seminal California modernists. During this period Rand also photographed Case Study Houses by Ellwood and Raphael Soriano.

He took the first of thousands of photos of the Watts Towers in 1953, when Rodia was putting the final touches on his series of spires fabricated from shells, glass, tile, mortar and steel mesh. Four decades later, when Rand undertook the photographic survey for the city, he shot the towers grid by grid, climbing scaffolding to the top of the 99-foot-tall sculpture with his heavy 4-by-5-inch-format camera.

"He said it was probably the toughest job he ever worked," said Bud Goldstone, a retired aerospace engineer who helped preserve the towers. "His pictures are incredibly beautiful."

Rand's photographs -- the first systematic record of Rodia's fantastic creation -- were showcased in a 1997 exhibit at the Craig Krull Gallery in Los Angeles and in a book, "The Los Angeles Watts Towers," published by the Getty Conservation Institute.

Rand was also active in architectural restoration and preservation, donating his time to photograph distinguished buildings that were threatened with destruction, including the Victorian houses that dotted Bunker Hill until they were razed by developers in the 1960s. He also fought to save Gill's West Hollywood masterpiece, the Dodge House, but it was demolished in 1970.

Described by friends as tenacious and opinionated, Rand walked through a house calling out the shots as he visualized them, often ignoring the architect's requests in favor of pictures framed by his own instincts and interpretations.

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