A seventies LA storefront from an unsung photo legend
Our first new release of May is kicking off National Photography Month in self-referential style—a photograph of a photo store! But this vintage find from the 1970s is so much more than that, combining a landmark LA building with one of the most consequential (and undersung!) architectural photographers in history: Marvin Rand.
If you couldn’t guess from the nine-foot-tall replica of a 35 millimeter Argus camera on this storefront’s façade, the structure pictured in The Dark Room was a camera shop on LA’s Miracle Mile. Designed by Marcus P. Miller in 1933, it’s an excellent example of programmatic architecture—when a building’s physical shape advertises its purpose. The black Vitrolite glass “camera” is complete with a shutter speed indicator, a winder, dual rangefinders, and of course a round “camera lens” window. That center window recalls similar porthole-esque windows of 1930s structures in the Streamline Moderne style—Art Deco architecture inspired by aerodynamic design. The typography in that eye-catching neon sign also draws from Art Deco. All of which is to say: this shop’s an architectural treasure, and the city of Los Angeles agrees. Since 1989, the façade has been a protected city landmark, the signage separated and owned by the Museum of Neon Art. (The store's even been copied by Disney theme parks in Florida and Paris, and Orlando’s Universal Studios.)
While they appear all over the US, programmatic buildings are especially associated with Southern California. As a native Angeleno and sought-after architectural photographer, and as someone committed to preserving LA’s notable buildings, Rand surely knew what a gem he had at hand when he shot The Dark Room in 1975. He framed his image to include just a slice of the buildings on either side of the store, and chose not to crop out a stain close to him on the sidewalk. These decisions provide contextual clues, orienting the store in real-life downtown LA. Shooting from a slight angle, he emphasizes the interesting dimensions of the building and showcases its intricate structural elements, revealing more detail than a flattened, head-on view would offer. He positioned himself far enough away to capture not just the whole storefront, but a sense of what it might feel like to stroll by it on the sidewalk—the inviting excitement of the mimetic façade, the faint air of mystery. In emphasizing the structure’s form, he expresses its essence.
Architects and editors alike respected Rand’s work for his attention to form. California Modernism—the architectural movement that many see as Rand’s career-defining muse—emphasized warmth and naturalness, cutting clean lines and creating geometric shapes that were often juxtaposed with the surrounding scenic environments. Rand instinctively understood the interplay of space, angles, light, and lines, and how to document the structures in a way that made them sing.
After serving in the Air Forces as an aerial photographer during World War II, Rand enrolled at LA’s Art Center College of Design, where he would rub elbows with a group of avant-garde artists and designers, including Saul Bass and Charles and Ray Eames. A few years after graduating, Rand shot the interior of a Pacific Palisades house as a favor for an industrial designer friend, but the images caught the eye of architectural historian and author Ester McCoy. She got them published in a home magazine and kickstarted Rand’s architectural photography career in the process.
Over more than five decades, Rand crisscrossed LA, camera in-hand, capturing the architectural creations of Modernist luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Kahn, Cesar Pelli, Craig Ellwood, and Frank Gehry. He shot the first meticulous survey of Simon Rodia’s monumental Watts Towers. His extensive documentation of the work of Charles and Henry Greene, and Irving Gill resulted in seminal books. He would become an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects (a rare privilege for a photographer!) and amass an archive of tens of thousands of images that act a compendium of Modernist masterpieces. Just a few of a reasons why Marvin Rand deserves more recognition among photography fans. And The Dark Room? Well, it deserves some real estate on your walls.
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