Photographer to Know: Ezra Stoller

His crisp pictures are the defining records of mid-century modern architecture.

Ezra Stoller had such a profound impact on the field of modern architectural photography that his name became a verb. Famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer saw their buildings “Stollerized” — a word coined by none other than Philip Johnson, denoting expertly reimagined for the flat space of the photograph and made accessible to readers of books and magazines who could not visit them in person.

The comprehensive new book Ezra Stoller: A Photographic History of American Modern Architecture (Phaidon) demonstrates how Stoller’s mostly black-and-white photographs play up the most exciting features of 20th-century landmarks: the swooping curves of Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (1962), the radical transparency of Johnson’s Glass House (1949), the monolithic gravitas of the United Nations Building (1950). As the photographer once said, “While I cannot make a bad building good, I can draw out the strengths in a work that has strength.”

United Nations, 1950, by Ezra Stoller
United Nations, International Team of Architects Led by Wallace K. Harrison, New York, NY, 1950

The volume is the work of author and architect Pierluigi Serraino, who writes in the introduction, “Stoller was de facto an architect with a camera, rather than a photographer looking at architecture. He thought that through his photography he was enhancing architecture, explaining it, and furthering its advancement.”

Although he didn’t have an architecture degree, Stoller, who died in 2004 at age 89, very nearly joined the profession. He was enrolled in architecture school at New York University when he began taking photographs in the late 1930s. This side project soon became a full-time career, as his classmates and professors (including Edward Durell Stone) started giving him assignments.

By 1946, he was traveling around the country documenting major projects for Fortune magazine, including Wright’s Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona. This was the beginning of a long association with Wright, who later commissioned Stoller to shoot the Guggenheim Museum and the house perched above a waterfall known as Fallingwater.

TWA Terminal, 1962, by Ezra Stoller
TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport, Eero Saarinen, New York, NY, 1962

Stoller had an equally symbiotic relationship with Saarinen, capturing many of the low-slung, boxy structures the Finnish architect designed for Midwestern corporate campuses, as well as his more fanciful TWA Terminal at Idlewild (now John F. Kennedy) Airport, in New York.

For a someone so strongly aligned with modern architecture, Stoller acknowledged some surprising historical influences. One was the visionary 18th-century printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who, like Stoller, trained in architecture. Another was the late-19th-century photographer Eugene Atget, who documented the streets and storefronts of Paris during a major upheaval in urban planning. “For getting a sense of space, there’s nobody like Atget,” Stoller once told an interviewer.

Marcel Breuer, Breuer House (1939), Lincoln, MA, 1940. Photo (c) Esto

In addition to Stoller’s artistry, architects appreciated his meticulous multistage process. Typically, he would start with a daylong walk-through of a project, after which he formulated a detailed shooting plan — annotating images of the building with arrows and times of day and paying close attention to weather and changing light. Once on-site with his equipment, he would rearrange the furniture to achieve the perfect shot and obsess, as he later recalled, over such questions as “at exactly what angle should the window be open.”

The result of this painstaking preparation is beautifully exemplified in his 1966 photograph of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum (now the Met Breuer), in which bright and even northern sunlight creates sharp contrasts that emphasize the upside-down-ziggurat form of the exterior. To look at this image is to see Breuer’s signature building “Stollerized.”

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The book Ezra Stoller: a Photographic History of Modern American Architecture

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