Whenever one thinks of the Eichlers, images of Ernie Braun's vintage photographs naturally come to mind. The two are entwined—like Ansel Adams and the Yosemite valley he immortalized on film.
During Braun's 14 years as a photographer for Eichler Homes, Inc., his photographic canvas typified not only the homes' architectural features of expansive walls of glass and their sharp, clean lines of post-and-beam ceilings; but it also portrayed the lifestyles of the homes' inhabitants. Images of families doing practical everyday activities—like cooking in the kitchen or even frolicking in the backyard over a game of badminton.
But who is Ernie Braun? How did he bring his images to life? And how did he achieve such astounding results during those one-and-a-half decades of Eichler photo sessions?
The son of Maurice Braun, one of California's greatest Impressionist painters, Ernie, 80, is still very much in love with shooting and teaching photography. The key to photography, he says, is capturing "what you want to say" about a subject. "Then if you are versatile, and know how to use the equipment, it's just like a message that you write—it emits kind of a graphic image," he told us recently from his San Anselmo home and studio, perched high on a hillside overlooking a lush Marin valley.
"In the non-human world, everything is designed from a practical point of view—the leaves on a plant, the fruit," Braun explained. "And that relates to the Eichler homes in the sense that their whole design was functional and artistic," having that same kind of well-designed symmetry.
"When I was doing a photo shoot for Joe Eichler," Braun remembered, a dreamy look on his face as if traveling back in time, "I'd visit the house we'd be shooting, before I would actually photograph it, to get an idea of the best time of day for certain shots, the models that would be needed, and the props."
Eichler Homes sales staff, like Catherine Munson and Bud Sthymmel, oftentimes pitched in—doubling as models when professionals weren't available, or in acquiring items for sets like orange slices, plates, and cups. "I'd help out any way I could," offered Munson, who today owns Lucas Valley Properties, a real estate company in Novato. "I was always interested in photography as a hobby myself, and I loved watching Ernie work. I knew the results he was getting and was in awe of him."
This utterly charming, delightful, and soft-spoken person, as Munson described Braun, would slowly walk around the room and ponder his shots, carefully studying the light and perhaps repositioning the model set that had been beautifully arranged by interior designer Matt Kahn and his assistants. "Sure, any Eichler home is photographic enough. But Ernie just had a sense of it," stated Munson. "He captured the essence of what he was trying to do; whereas a lot of other people literally, flat-footedly took a picture." However, Braun, she said, wasn't just any old photographer. "He's one swell, introspective, and bright photographer who figured out where the real shot was, and not the apparent shot."
The best shot for Eichler Homes, according to Braun, was achieved by putting people into his layouts, which were then used to embellish brochures, newspapers, magazines, and advertisements. People gave the photos scale and stirred the interest of buyers, who, he claimed, could relate much better to kids playing with an electric train on the floor than to a cold, blank room.
However, other clients had a different philosophy. "At the time, I was doing a lot of architectural photography of buildings like sewage plants, or for architects and magazines that didn't want people cluttering up their pictures," recalled Braun, who only met Joe Eichler on a few occasions. "So I loved the artistic freedom the Eichler staff and their public relations firms would give me with assignments—to put people in the scenes, and, if I wanted to, have fun staging a pillow fight in a bedroom."