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Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Ezra Stoller, Chronicler of Modern Architecture

Architectural photographer Ezra Stoller passed away recently at age 89. Both The New York Times and The Boston Globe noted Stoller's death, but the only blogosphere tribute I've seen is at Coincidences.

I've been looking at Stoller's work in recent weeks, and I've developed a new appreciation for it and its creator.

Most of us know site-specific art like the major earthworks through documentation rather than through direct experience. As I mentioned in a post after my visit to Spiral Jetty, documentation often obscures or frames out facets of the work. These aspects subsequently disappear from scholarly and critical discussions.

Although we don't often think of it as being akin to earthwork, architecture is similar in this way. Most scholars and critics come to know important buildings through photographic documentation rather than through spending time in and around the buildings themselves. Architects know this and understand that reputations are built as much on the documentation and representation of their work as on the work itself.

That's why every major American modernist architect relied on Ezra Stoller to photograph his buildings.

Stoller trained as an architect himself, but he built a successful career by photographing buildings rather than designing them. (His photograph of Dulles Airport is at right.) Stoller also built and ran Esto, an agency devoted to architectural photography. Esto's site contains a small gallery of his work, as does the Morehouse Gallery site. Looking at the images on these pages will convince modern architecture aficionados that their understanding of the era's major work has been mediated by Stoller's camera.

In a certain respect, Stoller played the role of an architectural critic, but he was a critic who worked in images rather than words. He presented his clients' work to a broad audience and framed the discussion that would emerge around it.

Stoller was the sort of critic any creator would want. He spent time understanding the architect's intentions, and then he did whatever was necessary to translate the essence of those intentions into his own medium of communication--most often a black-and-white, two-dimensional medium.

I had the opportunity last week to spend a few hours using Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill's archives to research an endangered Gordon Bunshaft building from the late-1950s. The files on the building were filled with Stoller photos, and the office's walls were covered with his work.

Some buildings in the Stoller photographs hanging in SOM's hallways have now been destroyed. (The Emhart Building is one example.) Now, only Stoller's images of these works survive.

While Stoller may have thought he was simply fulfilling his architect clients' requests for flattering photographs of their work, he did much more than that. He left us with an extensive and definitive record of a moment in time that saw great architectural experimentation and optimism--a moment that, ironically, contained the seed of its own demise in its infatuation with cutting-edge technology and all things new.

Sadly, these great buildings may not survive the next generation of developers hungry to flip valuable real estate at the top of an inflated market. But we're left with Stoller's photographs of the buildings. And that's better than nothing. Much better.

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