Image Maker: Ezra Stoller

The photographer Ezra Stoller was arguably the foremost chronicler of modernist architecture. Even today the images that we associate with the era—Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Seagram building by Mies van der Rohe, Eero Saarinen’s T.W.A. terminal—are unmistakably Stoller’s. In a career that spanned almost a half-century, Stoller, who died in 2004 at the age of 89, photographed about 3,500 projects, producing more than 60,000 images. Using his famous large-format camera, he shot the work of a veritable who’s-who of twentieth-century design : Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, Gordon Bunshaft, Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and many others. In architectural circles, when a project was photographed by Stoller, often in an abstract way, it had been “Stollerized.” For many architects, a Stoller photo shoot was almost a rite of passage. “Ezra was possessed with doing the most thorough job for every undertaking,” says Erica Stoller, his daughter and the director of Esto, the photographic agency founded by her father. She is co-author of a new book, Ezra Stoller, Photographer (Yale University Press, $65), a lavishly illustrated survey of her father’s work. The book also includes some of his lesser-known images, such as the industrial spaces he shot for Fortune magazine during the 1940s. Recently I talked to Erica about the book, her life growing up, and Ezra’s visual legacy.

Didn’t your father start his career while he was an architecture student?
Yes. While studying architecture at NYU in the 1930s, he began to realize that he was not going to be happy as a draftsman; he ended up taking a degree in industrial design. Incidentally, Ed Stone was one of his teachers at NYU. Ezra borrowed $15 from his uncle, Harry, for a Linhof camera and he used this to photograph models for architecture students and the work of young painters and sculptors, one of whom was Leonard Baskin. At school, as part of a project team, he would be the photographer. His first formal photography assignment was arranged through a school friend who worked for a firm that needed photographs of a new building that incorporated glass brick. The photographs were submitted to a Pittsburgh Glass competition. The project won the award; the images were then published and that connection allowed Ezra to meet editors and other architects.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Rye, New York, in a utopian community similar to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonia. This collective had been organized by politically active lefties and communists—though I didn’t know what that meant at the time—who bought 20 acres and divided it up. Henry Wright, an editor at Architectural Forum, designed most of the houses on the street. Myron Ehrenberg, a photographer; Jeanne Curtis, a researcher for Time-Life; and Dorothy Sterling, a writer, all lived in the neighborhood with their families. For me, they were just my friends’ parents. We were an interesting little gang of kids who hung around together and would go wandering into one another’s houses for supper. My father was part of the group, but not interested in politics.

What was your house like?
Our house was designed by Nemeny & Geller, but Ezra must have been a pushy client who made most of the decisions. At first he maintained a studio on 37th Street in Manhattan. Later he built a studio in a small building adjacent to our home. In addition to the assistant who traveled with him, there was a small staff including a darkroom person to process film and make contact proofs and prints, a secretary/bookkeeper, and another person to do everything else, like wrapping packages and handling deliveries. For many years, color film was processed elsewhere, so there was lots of back and forth. One way of getting film to the lab near Grand Central Station was to give the package and $5 to the train conductor, who’d walk over to 44th Street in his (feather-bedded) spare time. As a kid, most of my school friends had no idea what their parents did. My mother, Helen, was a painter, and I knew exactly what my father did: he went away with lots of equipment and came home with photographs. When the studio was next to the house, it was like living over the store. If there was a large print order, everyone might feed the prints into the dryer.

Did he ever take you on assignments?
Not often, but anyplace we went to had to do with his work and was some kind of assignment. We didn’t do things like take vacations. There was never time off.

What do you remember of his process with clients?
The first step would involve conversation with the client ahead of time, then a walk-through at the site to plan access and work out the schedule, always considering the weather and movement of the sun. He would make a timeline for the photography and then try to be everywhere at just the right time. For the early work, he’d be traveling with an 8-by-10 camera, sheet film (black and white, color daylight, and tungsten) with film holders and lights and cases of flashbulbs. He’d make several exposures of each view in black and white and in color, with many sheets of film to load, unload, and keep track of for processing. For interiors, when lighting was involved, there might be flashbulbs to change, lights to gel, and windows to black out between each exposure.

Returning from an assignment, Ezra would carefully review the black and white contact proofs and the color transparencies, organizing the sequence to create a narrative, cropping the color and the black and white (not always in the same way). For presentation of an early architecture assignment, there would be large black and white prints, mounted and bound into a book. Initially, color transparencies would be mounted with each matte cut or adjusted to the crop marks. The archiving system, too, was part of the process. Ezra created a cross-referenced library system. Because of this, we can now retrieve and view the whole collection. When I think back on all this, what a lot of work! But it was part of Ezra’s need to create an unassailable presentation and to control how one saw the images and therefore how one traveled into the building and through the space. In the early days my mother must have handled correspondence and kept an eye on billing when he was traveling. But who spoke to clients? Who arranged the schedule? Who supervised the equipment, lab, personnel, and most of all, who fretted about quality control? Ezra dreamed up the whole undertaking and the complicated procedures. And all this before Photoshop and without cell phones, FedEx, or even credit cards. It’s exhausting to talk about—imagine having to live it.

I gather your father developed a lot of friendships with architects?
Paul Rudolph was a real friend for a long time, even when they weren’t working together. He’d come over for supper. Gordon Bunshaft was a colleague and a friend, too. He’s known as a fairly gruff character, but his background and Ezra’s were similar and they had a warm and joking relationship. With most other architects, “friendship” came with their needing Ezra’s attention and his work. Ezra was also fond of Myron Goldsmith, the SOM Chicago designer. The friendship that was strongest and most enduring was with the graphic designer Will Burtin. They did a lot of work together and were close friends. As the art director of Fortune, Will hired Ezra to work on many projects that we included in the book: the story about a new offset lithographic printing process in step-by-step detail, and “Power in the West,” about hydroelectric power, in which Ezra followed workers into underground tunnels, where he photographed turbines and dams. He was always impressed with Will, who didn’t just deliver a layout and plug in the images. They worked closely together to illustrate a story. Neither told the other what to do. This approach to understand how things worked affected Ezra’s work in the future. He was interested in the structure and the function, and while he didn’t photograph only factories or bridges, he considered a house to be the same kind of machine.

Did Ezra have a favorite architect or building?
I keep thinking about that. He went off to these extraordinary places, came home, and you know there was always work to do—running a small office and a lab. When something was broken in the house, there was discord in the office, or the dog threw up, he’d have to deal with that reality. But I wonder why didn’t we ask more about where he’d been. Or why he didn’t tell us. The photographs told the story. To me it was important that the book include the full list of projects that my father worked on. In a short span of time, he photographed the Esso building at Rockefeller Center in New York City, then did Christmas decorations for House Beautiful, and then shot Helena Rubinstein’s apartment. One can put together any number of these unlikely lists. The combination was really astonishing.

Would you say he typecast himself as an architectural photographer?
He let himself be typecast in the end because he considered those projects most important. Many of the earlier, non-architecture assignments were editorial stories that were published once and then they sort of disappeared, whereas the photographs of architecture would be published many times in magazines and books. These images sort of reinforced themselves and he became the photographer of modern archi-tecture. Later, as he planned a retrospective exhibition, he chose not to include the interesting images from the Fortune projects dealing with printing, astrophysics, plastics, or hydroelectric power. Now as we look back at the images of architecture, we interpret them differently than the way they were seen when they were first published. Take the image of the Connecticut General building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, an axial shot that has so much depth. There are two people on the left, with their backs to the camera, looking to the Noguchi-designed sculpture and courtyard. On close examination, one sees people in the background who are playing Ping-Pong; then there are women at the window on a higher floor. It’s complicated, well-considered, and full of information. And it’s about the light-filled spaces and about people using the building.

Wasn’t your father a big fan of Louis Kahn’s work?
Ezra mostly worked on assignment. Later in his life, when he slowed down a bit, he realized that there was a hole in his archive, and he had not photographed the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. He rarely worked “on spec,” but he did go to the Salk in 1977. He also returned to Fallingwater at the end of his career because he felt there had been too much foliage when he was there the first time and one couldn’t really see the shape of the building.

What are you going to include in the exhibition you’re organizing at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City [January 24 through March 2, 2013]?
Many of the most well-known images of architecture were printed and signed in his lifetime. And since then, we’ve been rediscovering additional themes and many other impressive photographs. The forthcoming show will include rarely seen black-and-white images, as well as color photos, concentrating on the early assignments on science and production for Fortune magazine, and also a selection of new prints of the United Nations and the John Hancock building in Chicago, with views of construction and the finished buildings in each case.

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