Long before it was fashionable to focus on the urban centers of California as a subject for fine art photography, Yavno explored the people and landscapes of San Francisco and Los Angeles in a comprehensive and nuanced style. Yavno's earlier work was featured in The San Francisco Book (1948) and The Los Angeles Book (1950). His later work was featured in The Photography of Max Yavno (1981).
Living in New York in the late 1930s, Yavno was introduced to photography through his association with the influential Photo League. League members were firmly routed in a social documentary approach to photography; an approach that strongly influenced the work of Max Yavno. During these years, Yavno became friends with photographers Cansuelo Kanaga and Aaron Siskind. From Kanaga, Yavno learned the subtle details of crafting the photographic print. From Siskind, Yavno learned something of the personal journey of a life in photography and inner spirit of the medium itself.
During World War II, Yavno joined the U.S. Air Force and continued to work in photography. Like many individuals of his generation, he drifted to California at the end of the war. In 1948, Yavno was awarded a contract from Houghlin Mifflin to produce a photographic book on contemporary San Francisco. He was awarded the contract over Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. This publication (and the accompanying book on Los Angeles in 1950) allowed Yavno to delve deeply into and explore the differences between the two with sensitive portraits of its diverse residents. In Los Angeles, Yavno explored the eclectic and often bizarre nature of the city's business and residential architecture. Through his association with the author and social worker Beatrice Arthur, Yavno was introduced to the Mexican-American community of Chavez Ravine, where he produced a number of portraits that appeared in his Los Angeles book.
In 1952, Edward Steichen purchased a group of Yavno's photographs for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The following year, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue his photographic work. Yavno became deeply involved in commercial photography until 1975 when he returned to photographing the urban environment of Southern California as well as New York and the Middle East. Max Yavno died in 1985 at the age of 74.