New York

Ezra Stoller

Max Protetch Gallery

Ezra Stoller is the dean of modern architecture photography. The 85 photographs in this exhibit, taken over the last 40 years, show many of the American buildings in the modern canon. We know them well—or so we think. Actually, many of us know only the photographs. So now it is important to see how they work—as photographs, yes, but as documents, too.

They are styled: it is as if Stoller poses the buildings as he presents them. They are made photogenic—volumes are highlighted, textures are touched up—almost photographic, as if they had been redesigned in the photographs. Somehow Stoller is able to translate architectural form into photographic form and not deform either one. But his work is an interpretation, as is all documentary photography. And it is important, especially when one looks at architecture through such photography, to remember this.

Photography is instantaneous; architecture is not. As a photographer Stoller must select one synoptic moment—the view of the building giving the best insight into the architecture. How Stoller frames, how he sets scale and point of view, how he sees photographically, are crucial. Fortunately, Stoller was trained as an architect, and thus no doubt is especially aware of these considerations.

Many of the photographs present concepts that seem very close to those of the architects themselves. The Johnson Wax Building by Frank Lloyd Wright looks waxed—its skin is translucent, its interior opaque. As Stoller photographs it, from a point near the base, and empty of people, it stands like a monument, which is perhaps the effect Wright intended. Conversely, in a photograph of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, Stoller reduces the modernist monolith—all we see is the plaza and five floors. Perhaps he does this in the interest of human scale (this is one of the few images in which many people appear). In any case, the photograph is true to architecture in the city, where buildings frame and crop other buildings.

If the Seagram photograph evokes urban density, the photographs of The Salk Institute by Louis Kahn and The Atheneum by Richard Meier evoke architectural complexity. In both cases we see the structures from within. Elsewhere, Stoller is more detached. The Chamberlain Cottage by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, and Fallingwater by Wright, are seen as they are—the former as formal and rigorous, the latter as elegantly “natural.” The photographs are decorous: the points of view are well-suited to the designs. Now and then Stoller seems too sympathetic to the work, as in his depiction of the poetic architecture of Eero Saarinen. In a photo of Dulles International Airport the roof curves into a wing that vaults to the sky. So, too, with Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut Chapel. The rough forms and materials (read: monastic simplicity) are the architect’s doing; but Stoller adds a priest gazing in the light. This is a bit much.

Often, though, such interpretation works well. Two photos come to mind—one of I.M. Pei’s National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the other of the 60-inch Solar Telescope by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill on Kitt Peak in Arizona. We see the Center as a researcher might, from within an open cloister looking out toward the interface of land and sky. Atop Kitt Peak we are beyond such limits. Suddenly rocks lead to distant mountains; but the mountains appear to be no higher than a man who, in turn, looks absurdly small next to the telescope. Scale is suspended and proportion is lost. The exact form of the great telescope can only be guessed at—as it ascends, it disappears into the sky.

These are extraordinary photographs. In fact, this is precisely the usual criticism of them—that they make the architecture look better than it is. And this criticism is valid—Stoller often opts for effects rather than insights. But then, so do the architects. Many of the buildings are displays of style (I think of the art museums especially in this respect), or extravagant emblems for corporate clients. Too often Stoller indulges the architects and the clients. He renders the displays more theatrical and the emblems more imperious—that is, he assists them in their mystification and monument-making. One could not ask for a photographer more promotional of modern architecture; one could ask for one more critical of it. Maybe now that modern architecture is seen as a closed chapter, such a photographer will come along.

Hal Foster