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.