Stoller at Williams: genius on display

By Ralph LiebermanPrint Story | Email Story
The much-heralded show of Ezra Stoller’s architectural photographs opened last week at the Williams College Museum of Art. In addition to the usual tantalizing press-release previews, before it opened the exhibition inspired a feature article in this paper about Stoller, who is now retired and living in Williamstown. That the photographs would be superb — highly intelligent, informative and beautifully printed — was a foregone conclusion on the part of anyone who knows his work, and there was little risk that the show would disappoint. Nor does it, except perhaps for being several times too small. Stoller was one of the great 20th-century photographers of architecture, whose images of important buildings did much to establish them, and often their architects, as significant. “Iconic” is a word often used to describe Stoller’s images — “authoritative” in another — as writers attempt to come to grips with the fact that the photographs seem to capture the essence of a building and clarify for the viewer what it was the architect was trying to accomplish, often in a clearer way than from the experience of looking at the building itself. All photographers, even the most incompetent point-and-shooters, make major choices for those who will view their pictures; they select a viewing position, angle the camera to include some things while excluding others and decide at which moment to make the exposure. When the photographer is thoughtless or ill-informed, the pictures are generally dull or simply stupid; when he is highly intelligent, experienced and knowledgeable, the results are as eye-opening as the comments by a perceptive critic on a literary text. Photographs of buildings are a kind of portraiture, and looking at the Stoller show, which features images of six masterpieces of modern architecture, one is reminded of Alfred Stieglitz’s reply, when men asked him if he would photograph their wives as he had photographed Georgia O’Keeffe, that a portrait is not one image but a great number and that it is based on intimate knowledge and contact. Stoller knew the buildings he photographed, and he usually knew the architects as well. He was often shown around buildings by the men who had designed them, and understood their intentions and concerns. He had been trained as an architect himself, which gave him a sensitivity to the buildings that is revealed over and over in his pictures. This is not to suggest that Stoller’s edge was due to the training he got before he became a photographer; it came as well from his extraordinary craftsmanship. His technical prowess is clearest in pictures like those of the living room at Fallingwater and the lobby of the Seagram Building, in which the balance between exterior and interior illumination is perfectly maintained. That is very difficult to do. It requires the precise use of artificial lights, as well as a deep knowledge of how photographs alter what they show, to make artfully contrived illumination look entirely natural. Stoller was also keenly aware of what the point of any given photograph was to be, a gift that may be seen at its very best in the two photographs of the Salk Institute that greet the visitor about to enter the octagonal gallery. One of them, a view into a courtyard of a complex and multi-level building, shows us much of the building, and we understand its textures and something of its volumes and open spaces. The sun shines from somewhere behind us and brightly lights many of the surfaces we see. In the other picture, a view of the piazza between two buildings, Stoller shot directly into the bright afternoon sky, showing us those buildings as little more than shadows with jagged skylines at the sides of the picture as he concentrates on the space the buildings form rather than the buildings themselves. The time of day was chosen to allow for glinting reflections off the slit of water that runs the length of the piazza and the buildings are backlit and vague. Sometimes the buildings are celebrated for their sculptural qualities and massing, but now and then they are just part of the background. Many of the buildings Stoller photographed had a great deal of glass, and he was interested in both how that affected the experience of the interior and how different the buildings look at night. His picture of the lobby of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building shows the view out to McKim, Meade and White’s great Florentine Renaissance façade of the Racquet Club directly across Park Avenue. As Stoller shows the lobby, it seems too good to be just luck, and one gets the idea that Mies must consciously have included the sight of the older building in his own interior design. Whether he did or not, Mies gets the credit for the view that Stoller shows, which is how a great architectural photographer contributes to an architect’s work and reputation. Stoller made great use of the fact that by day a mid-town office tower, particularly one with tinted windows, is opaque and belongs to the people who work inside it, but after dark becomes transparent and part of the cityscape in a different way. His nighttime views are justly famous, and two pictures of the Seagram Building made from the same point, one by day and the other at dusk when every interior light was on, show the transformation and reveal why a single image would be incomplete. Right next to the two Seagram photographs is another first-class pair of day-night images — of the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport. The style of the architecture is entirely different, but the effect is equally interesting. Stoller was always thoughtful, but he was not heavy-handed or overly intellectual. He had a good sense of humor, and one of the most endearing pictures in the exhibition shows the front of the TWA terminal with the roof over the entrance curled, like the wave in a surfer’s nightmare, over a couple of portly guys standing in its path. The role of people in the photographs is itself an interesting study. Sometimes there are none, sometimes they seem placed as objects to contribute to the pattern of the image and sometimes they are blurred almost to invisibility as they moved through a time expose. But at other times Stoller shows them using the buildings in clever ways. In one view of a narrow and deep exterior staircase of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, a figure enters the building, leaving the steps in a mysterious way. When the architecture calls for it, as it did in part of the interior of the Yale building, Stoller’s photographs can be extremely symmetrical, marked by precisely axial camera placement and an absence of people to mar the balance. At other times, however, he toys with formal chaos; the space that appears in his view of the interior of the TWA terminal, with its wild array of sweeping balconies, molded piers, curved railings, shadowed stairs and moving figures is actually difficult to understand. But it is in the building itself, so the picture is accurate. Some of Stoller’s photographs are decidedly fashion plates, and he has a lot in common with Richard Avedon, the great fashion photographer, his slightly younger contemporary, for both were in the business of making their subjects, and the people who designed them, look as good as possible, and both created the standards by which to judge effective images of architecture and haute couture. The similarity of slick-paper architectural magazines and fashion magazines has often been remarked, and the suggestion made that the images in “Architectural Digest” are to real buildings as “Vogue” covers are to real women. Stoller himself might not have accepted that, but he was the master of a past generation. ESTO, the photographic agency he founded, is now run by his daughter Erica, and it is fascinating to find that her ideas about the nature of photography are entirely different from those of her father. Ezra Stoller was convinced, as his daughter put it in a recent interview in “Dwell” magazine, that “photography is the only honest presentation, and that talking about architecture is just a lot of hooey. I, on the other hand,” she went on, “don’t think photography is honest at all. Everything about it is manipulative.” Perhaps that is just another example of a child rejecting a parent’s values, but that there is a generation gap between Stoller and the present is also made clear by the fact that all of the photographs in the show are in black and white. Stoller did make some pictures in color, but the images of his that one remembers are not among them. The absence of color does not in the least detract from the pictures; in fact, Stoller’s vision was so strong, and his sensitivity to the nature of photography so acute, that color in these pictures might seem a distraction, an irrelevant addition that would not contribute to the insights he offers. That his pictures still hold their own in a world now almost entirely colorized says a great deal about his craft and his vision.

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