Richard Meier adored him. Frank Lloyd Wright asked for him. IM Pei admired him. And they all hired him. It’s safe to say that from the 1940s to the ’70s, the go-to photographer for the world’s most respected architects was Ezra Stoller.
Stoller, whose career coincided with the ascendency of Modern architecture, famously shot Falling Water, the U.N. Building, Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal, among dozens of other celebrated homes, factories, headquarters, and office buildings. In fact, Stoller’s influence was so pronounced that, in many cases, when we think of those buildings, it is Stoller’s images that we picture. Which is one of the reasons why Pierluigi Serraino, an architect and author based in Berkeley, California, spent three years working on a book about him. Serraino’s gorgeous coffee-table tome, simply titled Ezra Stoller, is a monumental collection of 450 photographs (as well as a handful of well-reported and insightful essays), in part the result of Stoller’s estate granting unrestricted access to an author for the first time in its more than 50-year history.
Blind spoke with Serraino about Stoller’s photos, his priorities, and his approach to creating enduring images.
What makes Stoller’s pictures so memorable?
His images have a lot of information in them. But at the same time there’s a silence, like you’re looking at a painting. He doesn’t really want to be part of the scene, and he doesn’t create artificial situations—there’s no artificial light and no props—to distract you from looking at the structure.
The pictures seem closely tied to their environment and—
—They are very, very, very carefully studied in a way that reveals the differences of a particular place, a particular geography. You are marveling at the shadows and you realize that if you are in California, you have a very different shadow from the one that you have in Maine. He also shows that not only are the building materials different in a specific place, but light will hit them in a unique way and vibrate in a unique way.
I was going to ask you about his use of shadows…
If you think about it, a building is fundamentally a kind of a sundial. And so based on where you are in the world, the building will come with its forms and also with its specific shadows. Stoller sought not only to include them but to make a photo narrative out of them, how, at certain times of the day, they reveal the beauty and the sense of architectural form. He didn’t shoot in overcast weather or in the rain; he simply didn’t shoot when the light was not favorable to shadows.
“Stoller capitalized on the volumetric awe that some of these clouds create”
Clouds seem to bring a lot of drama to his pictures as well. Were they something that he looked for?
Absolutely. They serve as a counterpoint to the straight lines of the architecture. The cloud formation is an accomplice in creating the marvel of the image, and Stoller capitalized on the volumetric awe that some of these clouds create. Cloud formation and landscaping are two of the most critical parts of his photographs.
Stoller prepared for a job by making, as you have referred to it, “a quiet reading” of the building. What did that look like?
Stoller wasn’t making singular pictures. He was telling a story about the building through a set of images. Early on, he developed a protocol: The day before a shoot, and without taking photographs, he would study the building to see how it behaved over time—for instance, how the sun would hit particular parts of the building, and the shadows we just talked about—and then he would create a chart, a shooting plan, which would establish his path of travel around the building and at what time he would be here and here and here. It was a kind of storyboard.
In the book, you mention that Stoller once said, “By the time you’ve got a shooting schedule set up for yourself, 60 to 70 percent of the job is done.”
Nothing was left to chance. Intuition or accident does not figure into the universe of Stoller.
Did this have an impact on how many images he would make?
On a good day, he might make eight pictures. He has about 47,000 photographs in his archive, which is not that many given how long his career was. Sometimes a building is so beautiful that you’re compelled to take pictures, but Stoller didn’t fall prey to that. He was extremely disciplined. He held back rather than creating inconsequential portrayals. He was not an architectural photographer in a hurry.
Why have Stoller’s pictures endured?
Because his pictures don’t, fundamentally, have the visual cues that make them belong inherently to a specific time. They are part of an era, but he aimed to capture their timelessness. He really looked at the building as if he was looking at the pyramids: with a focus on the inherent truth that they carried. He showed the full might of that architectural language. His love of architecture came from architecture, not photography. When I say he was an architect with a camera, I mean that in the most genuine way.
Interview by Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine and the author of the recently published book, What We Keep.
Ezra Stoller: A Photographic History of Modern American Architecture
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