Yale Joel, 87; photographer who captured the impossible

Times Staff Writer

Yale Joel, whose technical skill with a camera and willingness to stretch the boundaries of his craft earned him a reputation in the 1950s and ‘60s as the “photographer of the impossible,” has died. He was 87.

Joel, an original staff member of Life magazine, died Sept. 13 of cardiac arrest at his home in New York City, according to Bobbi Baker Burrows, director of photography for Life Books.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 09, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 09, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Joel obituary: The obituary of photographer Yale Joel in Wednesday’s California section identified him as an original member of the Life magazine staff. Life became a weekly publication in 1936; Joel joined the staff after World War II.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Joel obituary: The obituary of photographer Yale Joel in Wednesday’s California section said he died Sept. 13. He died Sept. 30. The obituary also said he photographed the Time-Life Building in Chicago. The building is in New York City.

“Yale was a great practitioner of experimental photography, in particular his three-dimensional and infrared work,” said Burrows, who was also an editor at Life magazine for 40 years. “He took extraordinary measures using specially designed equipment and setups to produce the unusual. His photography was imaginative with a whimsical flair for humor.”

Joel “relished assignments that required the use of special arcane equipment, carefully orchestrated setups and special effects,” Maren Stange wrote in the reference “Contemporary Photographers.”


“He can claim such photographic coups as a group portrait of all 1,500 Disney World employees, a view of the Rockettes chorus line in perfect formation, echoed in elegantly elongated shadows along the stage floor, and an infrared shot of an experimental subject enduring sensory deprivation in a totally dark chamber,” Stange states.

One of his most “extraordinary” photographs, according to Stange, was a full image of the Time-Life Building in Chicago taken just after its completion. Joel “used an 80-year-old wooden view camera with a bubble-shaped extreme wide-angle lens” to make the photograph, Stange wrote.

In recounting his career at Life, Joel recalled making an image of Hungarian mathematician Ervand Kogbetliantz and his three-dimensional chess set.

In an interview with John Loengard for the book “Life Photographers: What They Saw,” Joel said that he spent the morning at the studio setting up strobe lights so he could capture Kogbetliantz and the pieces on the chessboard.


Joel recalled that Kogbetliantz kept looking at the “strobe units as I was drawing them closer and closer to his ears, and he finally came up with a mathematical computation. He announced as I made the last adjustments, ‘If you bring those lights any closer than they are now, you’re going to blow my brains out.’ ”

Joel took the photograph, and the professor’s brains remained intact.

Not merely a technical master, Joel’s excellent manner with people made for other memorable images. They included a Little League team from New Hampshire in their pregame dressing room, and a young John F. Kennedy in Massachusetts running for Congress in 1946.

Born in the Bronx borough of New York, Joel began his photography career at 19. After serving as a combat photographer in the U.S. Army Pictorial Service from 1942 to 1946, he joined the staff of Life.

He remained there until 1972, when he went into advertising and industrial photography. He also taught workshops.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Shirley; sons David and Seth; a daughter Louisa Fanger; and four grandchildren.