It is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. In photography the writing is done with light to convey a message.
Venice photographer Marvin Rand is a gifted storyteller with light. When photographing an image he looks at the content and composition of the elements.
“What am I going to do to grab your eye? I don’t want you to look at it and leave,” he says. “I have to do something to keep you for a moment longer — to linger a moment to get the impact of what I am trying to tell you.
“That’s where aesthetics come in and how you use light and how you compose the image. That’s what makes a better photograph or a great photograph.”
A great photograph is infused with emotion and enables the observer to see the spirit and soul more than what may actually be seen through their own eyes looking at the object.
Venice resident and architect Larry Scarpa has worked with Marvin numerous times.
“What he does is take something three dimensional and turn it two dimensional and what we generally do is exactly the opposite,” says Larry. “In doing that, Marvin is, I think, a master of light.
“Photography is a technical deal. There are some really exceptional technical photographers that just don’t shine like Marvin. He knows how to capture the essence of space with light and shadows. His images capture a place. They’re not so much a visual picture as a spatial record of what is there.”
At the age of 17, Marvin was in college and knew he would be drafted for the war. He didn’t want to carry a gun.
“So, my mother and I got together and said, ‘Well, they really need photographers.'”
He crammed a photography course and started what would become his lifelong avocation and hobby.
Upon his return from the service, Marvin continued at college and then decided to go to Art Center, a cutting-edge design school founded in 1930 on Seventh Street in Los Angeles to teach real-world skills to artists and designers, a radical concept for its time. The current Art Center is in Pasadena.
When Marvin attended Art Center, “you were not supposed to ‘cross over’ — be a photographer and take classes in graphic design,” he says. “But I did and it was hush-hush.”
He learned graphic design under Alvin Lustig, a modern American design pioneer.
“Alvin taught us so much more than graphic design,” he says. “We expected the teachers to teach us quickly and put all the pressure on us that they could. That was our expectation from them and Alvin did it. “There were a lot of Germans at Art Center and some really fine American artists as instructors. I had the best of everything.”
After graduating, Marvin went into business with two of his classmates.
“Alvin Lustig said to our class, ‘All of you out of this one class are above average professionally — some of you are almost at the top and can hold your own with the Saul Basses and Charlie Eames,'” Marvin recalls.
Marvin was one at the top.
“I had no apprenticeship,” he says. “I never worked for anyone directly. I knew what the top was because I started at the top and I worked with people like Saul Bass and Charlie Eames. I didn’t know mediocre work — I wasn’t expected to do it.
“I’m known as a cutting-edge architectural photographer and I started my focus in the very beginning.”
A group of Art Center graduates got together and in 1952 formed Design Group. They invited professionals to join them, such as Charles and Ray Eames, among the most influential designers of the 20th century, whose studio was in Venice; Saul Bass, a renowned graphic designer; and Esther McCoy, remembered best for her pioneering work as an architectural historian, critic, and proponent of Southern California modern architecture of the early to mid-20th century.
“All the top-notch people,” says Marvin. “They didn’t look at us as young kids out of school.”
Marvin says “Charlie [Eames] invited a lot of us to work in his studio. We didn’t work for him because we wanted to establish ourselves.
“He took us in and said, ‘Fine, do whatever you want to and have fun. You bring so much to the studio that we love to have you around.’ I did a series of things for Charlie, like garden furniture.”
Marvin has wonderful stories to tell and an interesting one is about Charles Eames and his famous molded plywood chair.
“During the war Douglas Aircraft had an ‘ivory tower’,” says Marvin. “Some of the great artists of the United States worked at Douglas — Charlie, Eero Saarinen. They were all exploring and experimenting in graphic design.
“The Eames chair came out of the ‘ivory tower’. Charlie got the process to work but it was cumbersome. He finally refined it and after the war had it automated for mass production. His belief was that everybody should have the chair and it could be produced cheaply. It’s true.
“It wasn’t supposed to be an elitist chair. He made a deal with [furniture manufacturer] Herman Miller and Herman Miller put him up in another ‘ivory tower’ right there at 901 Abbot Kinney.”
Marvin isn’t quite sure how many photographs he has taken, but he does say he doesn’t consider himself a typical prolific shooter, where he is out every day.
“During the period where I had to raise three kids, I did quite a bit of work, but it wasn’t the amount that I should have been doing at the time,” he says.
Nonetheless, Marvin’s work speaks for itself. Over the years he has collaborated with renowned architects — Louis Kahn, Cesar Pelli, Charles Moore, Frank Gehry, Ray Kappe, Gregory Ain and John Lautner to name just a very few.
His contributions have not gone unnoticed by the American Institute of Architects. He is an honorary member of the Los Angeles, California and national chapters.
Marvin has also been recognized by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission and Department of Cultural Affairs with certificates of excellence and appreciation.
Age is no deterrent to learning new technology and Marvin is proof of that.
“One of the things, between service and Art Center, really ingrained in me was this work ethic — that nothing comes for nothing,” he says. “If you don’t work for it, you don’t get it. You put in the long hours that it takes.”
Several years ago, his wife, artist Mary Ann Danin, and friends helped him convert to digital photography. He also has state-of-the-art equipment.
“I’ve always been state-of-the-art, so anytime new equipment would arrive at Samy’s [camera store] they would call me and I would go in and buy it,” he says. “I’m the oldest Samy’s customer. I knew Samy when he worked for his uncle over at Bel Air.”
Although Marvin has changed with the times, he does say that “photography today is not the photography that I came in with. You can just take a camera and make pictures.
“I used to say that I could make a photographer out of someone who is bright in four months. That was in the old way. Today I can make you a photographer and you can walk out the door.
“But you can’t do the content that I do. That is the difference. I look for what is going to make a photograph exciting. Because the camera is basically automatic, today’s kids read a quick manual and pass themselves off as a professional. There’s nothing where it takes craftsmanship.
“I was taught in the very beginning that if you didn’t have craftsmanship, you didn’t have a craft, and photography is a craft. With digital, it is not a craft. It’s gone.”
History is seen through pictures, and Marvin has spent his long career documenting a pictorial history of Los Angeles. He collaborated as photographer on several architectural books — notably on Irving Gill and Greene & Greene.
“It’s very important to keep a record so we know what happened — for the next generation and the generation after that,” he says. “That’s why the Irving Gill book is so important. No more books on Irving Gill. I have the archives. I have the destroyed buildings. I have a responsibility that I need to execute.”
At the age of 82, Marvin has shot the best and worked with the best. It’s important to have his body of work documented for future generations and to include his experiences and theories.
Marvin acknowledges his close friendship with Esther McCoy. “She’s the one who guided me, always,” he says.
Asked if he has ever been a mentor to anyone, he replied, “No. Why aren’t they calling me? I’ve never closed the door on anyone.”
Marvin is represented by the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica.