Photographer Marvin Rand spent his life devoted to architecture. Starting in the 1950s, he stood at the shoulders of some of the most influential architectural figures of the twentieth century, leaving a record in images that still teaches us today.
Esther McCoy, Charles and Ray Eames, Louis Kahn, Welton Becket, Craig Ellwood, Cesar Pelli, John Lautner, Ray Kappe, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne—a body of work that could have left any one satisfied. Not Marvin. Close to eighty years in age, he crossed over to the 21st century and started working with a new generation including such individuals as Michele Saee and Greg Lynn.
Never mind that heart problems continued to dog him, and that he almost always left one essential piece of photographic equipment back in the office, he continued to record important work by both young architects and established ones. He would not stop. He did not cede to the frailties of his body, even as his wife, Mary Ann Danin, in support of his determination, quietly eased his path. In his mid-70s, an age where many chose not to learn the new, he dropped his lifelong habit of developing his own film and went digital—forcing himself to engulf a whole new technology for bringing work to light.
His approach was not simply about images. He advocated on behalf of excellence in our field, and was a champion of great work. He recorded the works of Greene & Greene and meticulously scoured every inch of the Watts Towers.
Through McCoy, he discovered the work of Irving Gill, photographing it for an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1958. Almost forty years later, he returned to the architect, spending a decade researching and traveling across the country to shoot images that documented not only Gill’s greatest work, but lesser known projects that were equally important. For the book that derived from this effort, Marvin often re-shot Gill homes at his own expense, which he had previously photographed. When I asked him why, he told me he felt that his original photographs did not adequately capture the spirit of the architect’s work.
“His photography transcends the mere documentation of the built environment,” said Michael Hricak in a letter to the AIA nominating Marvin for his Honorary AIA in 2003. “In a single thoughtful image, he is able to explain the intentions behind the work." Marvin liked to walk a structure with the architects he worked with because, he said, “I can bring [the architect’s] thinking and my thinking together. And then we have a philosophy that can work for that structure.”
We had many such walks.
I met him almost twenty years ago to this day; it was a shotgun marriage. Marvin was assigned by Angeles magazine to photograph one of my early houses. After the shoot, when I finally met him at a party at the owner’s house, he came right up to me and proceeded to tell me what I should have and should not have done to make my design better. One might think I would have been shocked and angry with him, but his deep interest in architecture and in my work was rather infectious. Instead of being put off I thought to myself, “I could like this little fireball of enthusiasm.” We became instant friends and worked together ever since. Marvin refused to hire staff, so for two decades I am proud to say: I was Marvin Rand’s assistant.
I picked up many cigarette butts, wrappers, and all kinds of small (sometimes barley visible to the naked eye) trash to clear the way for Marvin’s photos. I was finally relieved from trash detail when Marvin went digital. I became so accustomed to my clean up duties that I continued to do so even when it was not required. Marvin would yell out to me his new favorite saying, “Larry don’t worry about that trash, just leave it alone. I will take it out in Photoshop!”
Marvin was living history. When he began, Charles Eames offered him work—he would be invited to dinner along with several young colleagues to show slides at Eames’ home—and Esther McCoy, who he called his greatest influence, placed his first photographs in Living for Young Homemakers. He worked with Craig Ellwood and shot the Salk Institute for Kahn. But, as a youth, Marvin had no intention of being a photographer. He thought he would be a musician. He played the clarinet and the oboe in recognized youth orchestras. World War II changed that. He was drafted. “I wouldn’t carry a gun,” he said, “but I would carry a camera instead.”
For more than half a century, he used that camera to fight on behalf of our profession.