Max Yavno, Who Captured L.A. in His Photographs, Dies at 73

Times Staff Writer

Max Yavno, whose black-and-white photographs captured Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1940s as no one else’s did, has died of pneumonia and complications arising from a fall in a shower while in Italy last year. He was 73.

Yavno, who died Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, initially could not earn a living photographing urban life, despite the attention his work drew. He spent 25 years making commercial pictures for the advertising market but returned to realism a decade ago when galleries and the public began to take an interest.

His famous photograph of a crowd watching sun-worshiping body builders at Muscle Beach in Venice was sold at auction last year for nearly $4,000.

Although he was best known for the scenes he recorded in the immediate post-World War II years, he continued to photograph the faces and street scenes of Los Angeles and other places with a consistency of feeling that prompted Times art critic William Wilson to say in 1981 that there “is amazingly little difference between the L.A. Yavno saw in ’49 and the one he sees today.”


His last exhibition, four months ago, was a series of photographs taken in Morocco and Italy.

‘Very Special Ability’

In the early years, he caught in his lens such images as a pre-Dodgers Chavez Ravine, a giant plaster leg on top of a stocking store in West Los Angeles, a sea of fog between Hollywood and the La Brea Towers, then under construction.

Melrose Avenue photo gallery owner G. Ray Hawkins, who represented Yavno and exhibited his works, called him a “social documentarian” and noted that he had “a very special ability for combining composition and content while capturing his social vignettes.”


Yavno, the son of Russian immigrants, was born in New York and worked as a Wall Street messenger at 16 while attending City College of New York at night. He attended the graduate school of political economics at Columbia University, but became interested in photography.

During the 1940s, he worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration and became president of the Photo League.

After serving in the Army as a photographer during World War II, he moved to California, where his “San Francisco Book,” with text by columnist Herb Caen, was published in 1948. It included his shot “Cable Car,” which showed one of the famed cars being turned around at Powell and Market streets, a nostalgic scene for any former visitor.

L.A. Faces, Facades


In Los Angeles he turned his camera on Madman Muntz’s auto lots, on the going-out-of-business sale at the late mobster Mickey Cohen’s Sunset Strip haberdashery, on Muscle Beach and on other faces and facades of the era.

The “Los Angeles Book,” with words by former Times columnist Lee Shippey, was published in 1950.

Asked in 1976 how he liked the material written by Caen and Shippey for those books, Yavno grinned and said, “I never read either of them.”

He was such a dedicated artist that, as he once told Art Seidenbaum of The Times, he spent three Sundays getting the Muscle Beach photograph. It was that long, he said, before the subjects stopped flexing for his camera and resumed posing for each other.


In 1950, Edward Steichen chose 20 of Yavno’s prints for the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1951, Yavno won a Guggenheim grant.

But Yavno was unable to earn a living as an artist.

“I had the Guggenheim,” he said. “I had the pictures in the museums and I was starving.”

So he began to work for the advertising agencies, recalling later that he “felt guilty for a while.”


In the mid-1970s, however, he was so taken by a view of the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona that “I just couldn’t stand to do commercial work any more.”

Yavno was married at 19 and divorced after three years. He leaves a sister.

A memorial service will be held Tuesday at 2 p.m. at Hillside Memorial Park.

Hawkins said that in lieu of flowers, blood donations to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center would be welcomed, as would be contributions through the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery to a scholarship fund for young social documentary photography students.