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    Ezra Stoller

    continued

    Stoller and Modern architecture first appeared in America at roughly the same time and place. He was born in Chicago in 1915, grew up in New York, and graduated from New York University in 1938. After a brief apprenticeship with the photographer Paul Strand, he was drafted and taught photography in the Army. After the war he concentrated on architectural photography.

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    Stoller did more than document a building. He told a story about it, pairing his talents with some of the giants of Modern architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, and such later-generation Modern architects as Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei, and Richard Meier. It was said that to have one's building securely installed in the canon of Modern architecture, it had to be "Stollerized" — captured in deep-focus, crisp black-and-white detail. In 1960 Stoller's contribution to Modern architecture was recognized by the American Institute of Architects when he received the AIA's first-ever award for architectural photography. His studio, Esto Photographics, continues to be the gold standard in architecture photography, executed by a new generation of photographers.

    Stoller's work reveals the photographer's tale of the building, helping the viewer to understand architecture in space. An excellent example of this from the exhibit is the series of photos of Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building in Manhattan, taken in 1958, shortly after the building's completion.

    Stoller begins his story: First we see the dark bronze tower as it commands Park Avenue, standing on its plaza pedestal. It is a dusk shot, with the tower glowing most brightly at ground level. The interior and exterior are revealed simultaneously. In another shot, taken in the morning from the northeast,

    Stoller tells us about the tower's reflectivity: a restrained, austere, elegant box, made all the more reserved in contrast to a billboard for Palisades Park in the picture's foreground, adorned with a bikini-clad beauty (is Stoller playfully jabbing Seagram in the ribs with his photographer's elbow?). Then we are close up on just the northeast corner edge of the building, reading its bronze finish, with a view of Gordon Bunshaft's then-six-year-old Lever House just across the street to the northwest.

    Next Stoller takes us up on the roof, where we see, in the foreground, the rails of the window-washing equipment and, in the background, the distant landmarks of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building to the south. Inside, Stoller ushers us to a northwest corner office in the afternoon, sunlight spilling across its shiny tile floor, and through the minimally detailed floor-to-ceiling windows, Central Park in the hazy distance.

    We understand where we are in the city, how one view connects to the other. It's as if Stoller presents us with a carefully composed series of dots in space, like stars, which reveal the constellation of Seagram's beauty and genius.

    I never met Ezra Stoller (he died in 2004), but some of the photos suggest he had an easy sense of humor. In a collection of images from 1960 of Saarinen's TWA Terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport (which was then known as Idlewild Airport), there is one photo of three men in suits, standing behind a Cadillac parked in the terminal drop-off lane. We can't see their faces, but they are looking up in wonder — surely with quizzical expressions — at Saarinen's concrete gymnastics swooping just over their heads, seemingly showing up the Cadillac's tailfins.

    In what might be Stoller's best juxtaposition of architecture and blessed luck, he captured Wright's Guggenheim Museum across Fifth Avenue, with a 1956 Ford Fairlane coupe in the bottom foreground. The branches of a tree fill the top foreground. And in the middle distance, Wright's stratified rotunda glistens in the afternoon sun. None of this was chance, and we admire the photographer's careful control of the composition.

    But then we notice, on the sidewalk right in front of the museum, two nuns in full black habits, sauntering north on the avenue. Stoller catches them in mid-stride, their stiffly starched white wimples echoing the curve of Wright's tiered spiral. It was just a coincidence that the nuns were there when Stoller was about to click his shutter, and he immediately knew that they would complete the shot.

    (Years later, when Esto photographer Jeff Goldberg photographed Gwathmey Siegel's addition to the Guggenheim from a similar vantage point, nun costumes were rented for two stand-ins in homage to Stoller's landmark shot.)

    Stoller's camera lens froze forever Modern architecture's coolly controlled elegance, but not without his own wry commentary that mere happenstance is always the spice of life.   >>>

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Architect Michael J. Crosbie is chair of the University of Hartford's Department of Architecture, editor-in-chief of Faith & Form magazine, and a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek.   More by Michael J. Crosbie

     

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    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, New York, NY
    (1959) by Ezra Stoller. The central atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright, New York, NY
    (1959) by Ezra Stoller. Ezra Stoller's iconic photo of the Guggenheim Museum with two nuns walking past.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY
    (1958) by Ezra Stoller. Northwest corner overview at dusk of the Seagram Building, by Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY
    (1958) by Ezra Stoller. Overview of the building's north facade in morning light.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY
    (1958) by Ezra Stoller. Detail photo of the northeast tower corner, with Lever House in the background.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY
    (1958) by Ezra Stoller. Rooftop view from the Seagram Building, looking south from the northwest corner, with the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building visible in the background.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image
    SUBSCRIPTION SAMPLE

    Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY
    (1958) by Ezra Stoller. Interior office view at the northwest corner of the tower.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, New York, NY
    (1958) by Ezra Stoller. Classic exterior overview looking across Park Avenue at the plaza and lower parts of the tower.

    Photo: © Ezra Stoller/ Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York Extra Large Image

     

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