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Leonard Vernon, 89; Built an Extensive Photo Collection

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The wealthy industrial developer, builder and contractor was an influential figure, along with his wife, for more than three decades. They amassed an archive that now stands at 4,000 images.

Leonard Vernon, who with his wife, Marjorie, amassed one of the country's finest private collections of photography, died Friday in his sleep at his Bel-Air home. He was 89 and had been in failing health with Parkinson's disease, his daughter, Carol, said.

Vernon, a wealthy industrial developer, builder and contractor, was an influential figure, along with his wife, for more than three decades in the Southern California photography community. The couple, who friends said were equal partners in the success of the collection, started buying photographs in 1976 after a chance encounter in Carmel. They built an archive that now stands at 4,000 images.

"Their collection goes from the earliest photographs in the 1840s to current pictures and covers over 700 photographers," Carol Vernon said.

Her father's interest in the subject never waned.

"The day before he died, he was looking at catalogs for the upcoming auctions in New York," she said.

Images from the Vernon collection have been lent to the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Getty Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Southern California, as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and other major institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago.

"It is one of the great modernist collections," said Tim Wride, a former curator of photography at LACMA who is now the executive director of the No Strings Foundation, a philanthropy that funds photographers. "Any historical show that's been done over the last 10 years usually includes pieces from the Vernon collection."

Stephen White, a photography dealer who owned one of the first important photography galleries in Los Angeles, knew the Vernons -- and their collection -- well.

"It is probably one of the few major private collections left from the beginning days of collecting in the 1970s," White told The Times. He described the collection as heavy in Western photography with images by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and noted that many photographs on display at the Getty in an exhibition of Weston's work are from the Vernon collection.

Their collection reflected their humanistic life view.

"I don't know how to describe it or explain it," Vernon said in a 1999 interview with The Times. "But from Day One, absolutely, we didn't have to talk to each other. We would drive the dealers crazy. They would show us 24 prints or so, and I would know, and Marjorie would know, right away which one we were going to get serious about.

"Almost everything appealed to us," Vernon said. "Except that we were not interested in the work of a photographer who could see nothing beautiful in the world."

Vernon's world began in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Aug. 3, 1918. As a teenager, he served as a sitter for Marjorie, also a Brooklyn native, and her brother, but she did not play a major part in his life until years later.

He graduated from City College of New York with a degree in engineering and was a weatherman in the Army Air Forces during World War II.

While on a business trip to Los Angeles in 1955, Vernon was urged by mutual friends to look up Marjorie, who was widowed and living in Southern California. They married after a six-month courtship and decided to make Los Angeles their home.

According to the 1999 Times story, they were visiting friends in Carmel on New Year's Eve in 1976 when Vernon, out on a stroll, happened into the Weston Gallery owned by Margaret Weston, who was Edward Weston's daughter-in-law. Vernon saw a photograph he liked and gave her his card, and within a few weeks she traveled to Los Angeles with a selection of photographs for the Vernons to examine.

They snapped up 17 of them, and a lifelong passion started. The Vernons developed friendships with such giants of photography as Weston and Adams and scores of other photographers.

Over the years they held fast to their philosophy of collecting.

"We were interested in the image and what the image said to us," Leonard said. "For example, a dealer would come and say, 'You just have to have this in your collection.' And while I was pleasant, I would tell them, 'I don't have to have that picture at all.' "

"They had a great set of eyes between them," Carol Vernon told The Times.

Within the Los Angeles photography community, the Vernons were considered as influential as the legendary Medici family of Italy. The couple helped countless photographers, many of them not well-known, by purchasing their work or in some cases lending money to get a project completed.

They were generous in opening their home to school groups and others who wanted to tour their collection. Visitors were often "gape-mouthed at the Imogen Cunningham and Paul Strand prints hanging next to the bathroom door," the 1999 Times story reported.

Marjorie Vernon died of cancer at 76 in 1998.

In 1999, 150 photographs from their collection were displayed at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in the exhibition "An Eclectic Focus: Photographs From the Vernon Collection." It was later shown at the Friends of Photography in San Francisco.

Vernon's philanthropic activities included support for the international aid group Operation USA. He also was a lifelong member of B'nai B'rith and past president of the United Nations Assn.

In addition to his daughter, Vernon is survived by sons Barry Vernon of Salt Lake City and Robert Vernon of Denver, a granddaughter and a great-grandson.

By John Thurber

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