Ezra Stoller at Yossi Milo

Building Design, January 2011, Review

Among the photographs in the Ezra Stoller exhibition now showing in New York is a shot of SOM’s 1954 Manufacturers Trust building. It is night and raining. A radiant glass box is framed by a pitch black sky, its softened reflection lighting up the wet road before it. Few architectural photographers would consider shooting in the rain, but with Stoller the result is magical.

The rise of modernism in the US may have relied on the talents of Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson and Frank Lloyd Wright, but it also needed Stoller. Whether he was shooting under clear blue skies, at the edge of a lightning storm or during a downpour, he invariably showed his subjects to best effect. His now iconic shots of the key modernist buildings of the time – the Guggenheim, TWA terminal, Falling Water among others – were instrumental in promoting the new style.

There is a modest but significant selection of prints in this show at Yossi Milo, a private gallery in Chelsea. Though the gallery is casting his work as fine art, in his day Stoller was a commercial photographer hired by the glossies. But if his paymasters were the magazine editors, his loyalties lay with the architects. Himself a trained architect – he graduated from NYU in 1938 – he was as caught up in the post war exuberance of the modern movement as his many architect friends, among them Paul Rudolph, IM Pei and Gordon Bunshaft.

Along with this ideological affinity, Stoller also understood their buildings. He knew how they functioned and what qualities to accentuate. He didn’t just find the best angle at the right moment, but could capture the sculptural qualities of a space. By squeezing a range of views into a single image, he invites the viewer on a virtual walkthrough of the building, round the sumptuous curves of TWA and the interlocking geometries of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute (one of his most famous images, not in the show).

People – so often missing from architectural photography – are used to help tell the story. They occupy the gallery and drift through the airport. Composed, most probably staged, they complement the architecture like the cool modern furniture in the Seagram building’s corporate offices. Frequently there are cars in shot and aeroplanes that speak of progress and modernity, and in the foreground of one photograph, a billboard of a reclining woman in a bikini, her curves set against the rigid verticality of the Seagram tower behind. These compositional devices and witty commentary also give these photographs the power of historical document.

Stoller’s use of light is exquisite. Dramatic shadows fall across Gropius and Breuer’s Chamberlain Cottage; a luminous white disc crowns the General Motors Technical Centre; at the Guggenheim, contrasting black and white spirals rise up through the void; in the Seagram building, two soft puddles of light on the floor reflect the glowing walls to either side. His instinct here was bolstered by research. Preparations involved extensive discussions with the architect and an analysis of changing patterns of light. On a plan, he would set out his shooting schedule, marking the optimum time and position to record each shot.

Stoller died in 2004, but his influence lives on, in part through misconception. Like Julius Shulman on the west coast, Stoller wasn’t just documenting modernist architecture but selling the modernist dream, and his images, more than mere 2D representations of 3D space, became objects in their own right, a few coming to stand for the buildings themselves.

But while the one killer shot is now the holy grail of architectural photography, Stoller himself worked in sequences, believing only a range of images could tell the whole story. Sometimes he followed a project over many years – he revisited the UN three times from 1949 to the 1980s. Likewise, this show, with its clusters of six to eight images of better known projects, combined with single shots of some of the lesser known domestic commissions, takes a fuller view of Stoller himself.

This article at Building Design (subscription site)