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Boston Society of Architects

Pivot Gallery

Ezra Stoller's
exceptional eye

With his sensitivity to line and light, the photographer elevated Modernist design

Cohen House Paul Rudolph Siesta Key FL 1955 128 Q 004

Ezra Stoller, Cohen House, Paul Rudolph, Siesta Key, FL, 1955, Gelatin Silver Print

© Ezra Stoller/Esto, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Is there anything more aesthetically pleasing than the alignment of philosophy and design? This was the overarching tenet of the famed Bauhaus school of art, architecture, and design, currently the subject of a centenary celebration of its founding in no fewer than four exhibits across metropolitan Boston. An incubator of radical ideas that exalted the utilitarian and eschewed decoration, the Bauhaus generated the Modernist movement, a seismic pivot in design whose influence still reverberates today. Architectural photographer Ezra Stoller (1915–2004) possessed the same Bauhaus passion for uniting form and function. His work became the exemplar of midcentury Modernism with imagery so exceptional that it conferred celebrity status on the architects whose buildings he immortalized.

As a boy in New Jersey, Stoller described attending the “radical and freewheeling” Modern School, likely sowing the seeds for his progressive ideology. Later on in a mechanical drawing class, he became “fascinated by interpreting the three-dimensional world in two dimensions,” which spurred his study of architecture at New York University. There, he was bitten by the photography bug and began photographing the models of fellow students, along with buildings and sculpture. Opting for a degree in industrial design, Stoller went on to work with photographer Paul Strand in the Office of Emergency Management until he was inducted into WWII at the Army Signal Corps Photo Center. With a superb eye for spatial relations, solid training in architectural and industrial design, and intensive practical experience, Stoller’s career trajectory in photography was set to soar.

In the introduction to Ezra Stoller, Photographer, his daughter, Erica, writes that Stoller’s “approach to photography was formed by the functionalist tenets of Modern architecture.” Before each photo session, Stoller would walk the premises of a building with plans in hand, internalizing the intention of its design and formulating the best perspectives and lighting to capitalize on its essence. Although Stoller’s strategy was based on moving in and around buildings, his images felt stately, serene, and spacious. Like the pioneer landscape photographer Ansel Adams, Stoller favored the sharp resolution and infinite focus provided by a view camera, and he similarly exploited the exquisite tonalities and contrasts afforded by black-and-white film. Just as Adams popularized landscapes of the American West, Stoller advanced the view of Modernist design as monumental sculpture.

Perhaps more than anything else, Stoller’s images projected the ideals of design and extolled the aspirations of its designers. His acute sensitivity to lighting, angle, and scale contributed to both the grandeur and the playfulness of his images. Such mastery is epitomized in the grace and power of linear elements seen in Stoller’s images of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center, and Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. For context, cars and people appeared often in his urban scenes, hinting at era and hour. Not surprisingly, Stoller was something of a perfectionist, sometimes waiting for hours to capture just the right light, saying “Photography is space, light, texture, of course, but the really important element is time—that nanosecond when the image organizes itself on the ground glass.”

Stoller possessed an uncanny gift for creating multiple perspectives. “My photos tend to be confusing,” he mused. “I show a great many vistas.” However, it was not puzzlement but awe that Stoller inspired as he crafted a magical rapport of geometric form, illumination, and reflection, as seen in photographs such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Benjamin Thompson’s Design Research Building. His photographs of Paul Rudolph’s Cohen House and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water exemplify Stoller’s rich resonances of line, light, shadow, and texture that helped elevate the popular impression of architecture from engineering project to artistic marvel.

An avowed commercial photographer during a career spanning 40 years, from the 1930s into the 1970s, Stoller’s unique ability to visualize the inspirations and ambitions of Modern architecture led to eager commissions by the leading architects of his time, such as Kahn; Saarinen; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; van der Rohe; Philip Johnson; Rudolph; Wright; and I.M. Pei. Stoller’s estate is represented by gallerist Yossi Milo in New York City, who proffers the popular opinion, “Many argue that Stoller’s photographs actually made the buildings famous.”

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