The Max Yavno Photograph Collection at Scripps
by Elizabeth Hamilton, with photographs by Max Yavno taken at Scripps College, c. 1945–50
In 1950, Los Angeles Times columnist Lee Shippey and acclaimed street photographer Max Yavno published The Los Angeles Book, a portrait of the city in words and images, with chapters on history, industry, architecture, culture, and, of course, traffic. The chapter on education opens with a picture of a scene no doubt familiar to all Scripps alumnae: two young women sit at separate tables in the wood-paneled reading room of Denison Library, poring over their studies. Separated by a tall bookcase, they are not visible to each other, but, similarly focused on their work, they share a quiet, scholarly affinity.
In the pages that follow, two more images of Scripps student life appear. In one, dashing painter Millard Sheets presides over easel painting on Bowling Green. In the other, a foregrounded pair of legs, in second position, frames dancers who seem to be contorting themselves in accordance with some bit of modern choreography. Although the text that accompanies these photographs includes passages on UCLA, USC, and Occidental College, there is no mention of Scripps. Nevertheless, Yavno chose images of Scripps to represent the region’s burgeoning educational and cultural milieu.
Why Yavno took these photos of Scripps is not definitively known. The three featured in The Los Angeles Book are part of a group of 36, shot between 1945 and 1950, comprising the College’s Max Yavno Photograph Collection. According to former Denison Library director Judy Harvey Sahak ’64, Yavno’s close friendship with Millard Sheets, who taught at Scripps, likely played a role. “My understanding is that Millard Sheets arranged for Max Yavno to come to Scripps in 1945,” says Sahak. “He did take many photographs around campus, probably for the annual calendar.” When the photos were printed, they were filed as stock images according to theme—athletics, academics, student life. It was not until the 1990s, nearly a decade after the artist’s death, that archivists pulled them together to form the collection.
Yavno’s photos of Scripps are typical of his work. His style of street photography was perhaps less spontaneous than that of his peers—he preferred to shoot from a tripod rather than from the hip—but his eye for composition was unerring. “He has, without intention, the early American photographers’ attitude toward their work,” wrote critic Ben Maddow. “They were craftsmen in the tradition of fine carpenters or good hunters; precise detail and deep intuition each fed the other.” And Yavno’s attention to pattern, shape, and repetition—in the ceiling of the Clark Humanities Building or the architecture of Denison Library—belies an interest in abstraction he shared with many artists of his generation.
Yet Yavno was not formally trained as a photographer. Born in New York City in 1911, he studied literature and economics at Columbia University and worked for the New York Stock Exchange. During the Great Depression, he found work through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a sort of location scout, assigned to photograph urban settings that might inspire stage backdrops for WPA theater productions. Recording street scenes and cityscapes all over New York, he became a connoisseur of the drama they contained and grew interested in the power of photography to effect social change. He joined the Film and Photo League, a group of documentary photographers devoted to improving social conditions through art. In 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps and stationed in Southern California, where he taught army photographers how to shoot and print pictures. He remained in California for the rest of his life, living in Los Angeles and San Francisco. By the late 1940s, when he was making the Scripps photos, Yavno was a well-known artist, with work featured in major museum exhibitions alongside that of Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Man Ray, and Edward Weston. The year The Los Angeles Book was published, the Museum of Modern Art in New York accessioned 20 of his prints into their permanent collection.
“Take a good look at Los Angeles now. It won’t stay the same for long, and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere,” reads the flap copy for The Los Angeles Book. Indeed, looking at Yavno’s photos of the College, the same might be said of Scripps. Today’s student body is larger, more diverse, and just as inclined to work in a science lab as in an art studio. But many more qualities have endured: the culture of the residence halls, the commitment to scholarship, and the beauty of the campus. And there is still nothing quite like it anywhere.
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