The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Receives Additional Gift from Photographer Max Yavno’s Estate

Los Angeles – The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), is pleased to announce a generous gift of $435,000 from the estate of renowned Los Angeles photographer Max Yavno, nearly 25 years after his death. Yavno, who died in 1985, was an accomplished fine art and commercial photographer known for his social documentation and sensitive depiction of urban realism.


Max Yavno, Muscle Beach, 1949, gelatin silver print, 15 7/8 x 19 7/8 in., collection of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Max Yavno Collection

In 1989, MOCA received a substantial portion of Yavno’s estate, including 183 vintage and contemporary prints and a contribution of $500,000, which was made possible by the late Leonard Vernon, MOCA Board trustee (1989–96) and noted photography collector. In the same year, an exhibition of the photographs was presented at MOCA Grand Avenue. In 2007, upon Vernon’s passing, Stephen D. McAvoy succeeded Vernon as executor of Yavno’s estate. Through McAvoy’s efforts, and with the assistance from the staff of the State of California’s Unclaimed Property Division, an additional $435,000 has been obtained for the benefit of the museum.

“This is an unexpected, greatly valued, and generous gift from the estate of Max Yavno, who is one of the most important photographers of our time. The museum’s photography collection has significantly been enhanced by the addition of his great work,” commented MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch. “MOCA extends its sincere thanks to Stephen McAvoy for his unyielding efforts to secure the additional funds for the museum.”

“The generous gift from the Yavno estate marked the founding of MOCA’s photography collection and has supported many of the museum’s greatest photography exhibitions—from W. Eugene Smith: Let Truth Be the Prejudice (1986) and Perpetual Motif: The Art of Man Ray (1989) to Garry Winogrand (1989), among others—and Leonard Vernon was, without a doubt, the single most dedicated advocate for a robust photography program at MOCA,” said MOCA Chief Curator Paul Schimmel.

“Max Yavno was the preeminent chronicler of Los Angeles who made some of the most iconic images of this city, including Muscle Beach (1949). His generous gift of 183 of his own photographs in 1989 laid the foundation for MOCA’s photography collection, which now numbers more than 3,500 works and continues to be a key component of MOCA’s program,” commented MOCA Associate Curator Rebecca Morse.

Said Stephen McAvoy, successor executor of the estate of Max Yavno and retired controller of City National Bank, “I am amazed and pleased that 25 years after Max’s death, these funds are still able to benefit the museum, and are eligible to be matched by the generous grant given to the museum by The Broad Foundation.”

“Max was a great photographer, an incredible craftsman, and a master printer. He had a unique eye, composing his pictures in the camera so that all the work was done before he pressed the shutter. I am delighted that MOCA, and most of all Los Angeles, can benefit from these spectacular prints,” commented Carol Vernon, daughter of the late Leonard Vernon.

Max Yavno (b. 1911, New York; d. 1985, San Francisco) studied business and political science at Columbia University (1927–32) and began his photography career in the late 1930s when he was hired by the Federal Theatre Project, a division of the Works Progress Administration, to photograph cityscapes that could serve as inspiration for theatrical stage sets. Simultaneously, he joined the Photo League, a group of photographers dedicated to the medium as a tool for social change. He was president of the Photo League in 1938 and 1939 and his affiliation with the organization formed the foundation of his style, which was focused on urban street life, working people, and the richness of everyday life.

During World War II, Yavno was drafted into the army as a photography instructor in Southern California. Upon his discharge in 1945, he took up permanent residence on the West Coast where he created the photographs for The San Francisco Book (1948), with writer Herb Caen, and The Los Angeles Book (1950), with writer Lee Shippey. He also contributed photographs to The Story of Wine in California (1962), with text by M.F.K. Fisher.

Yavno photographed some of his most well-known images of California, which include scenes from Hollywood premieres, Muscle Beach, San Francisco trolley cars, the barrio, corner gas stations, boxing matches, and hot dog stands. His photographs are known for their technical brilliance and aesthetic power. He felt that technique is to photography what grammar is to writing and that, “all the technique in the world won’t make you a great photographer any more than mastering grammar will make you a fine writer. But it helps you communicate, which is an important part of what photography is all about.”

known for its compositional strength and a rare sensitivity to texture and form. In 1954 and 1955 he was awarded the New York Art Directors Gold Medal. In 1975, after a 21-year commercial photography career, Yavno began to devote himself exclusively to fine art photography, concentrating on the environs of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. He also traveled to Israel, Egypt, Mexico, and Morocco to capture the social landscapes of these different cultures.

Yavno’s photographs are also included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the International Museum of Photography, Rochester, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among others.

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