Architects shape buildings, but architectural photographers shape how we perceive them. During the midcentury there was one photographer that had an outsize influence: Ezra Stoller, the person leading practitioners like I.M. Pei, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, Walter Gropius, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill trusted to communicate their work and who, in turn, made them famous.
Ezra Stoller: A Photographic History of Modernism, a new book from Phaidon, offers an unprecedented exploration of his archive and what made his images so captivating. While Stoller’s photographs have become one of the primary records of midcentury architecture, never before have so many of them been published in a single tome.
“This book is the story of Ezra Stoller’s epic and groundbreaking architectural adventure,” author Pierluigi Serraino writes in the introduction.
Born in 1915, Stoller trained as a draftsman and industrial designer before becoming a professional photographer. Active during the postwar years, he was perhaps the most in demand architectural photographer of his generation. In 1961, he received the American Institute of Architects’s Architectural Photography Medal, earning commendations as “the chief enabler of our experiences in Modern architecture.”
Stoller made midcentury architecture sing and he did it by taking a methodical approach to his images.
Preferring to work in black and white—which was more predictable and easier to control than color film—Stoller thoroughly studied his assignments before photographing them. This meant visiting the sites before shooting them, fastidiously following weather forecasts, and speaking to the architects who commissioned him.
Because he was trained in design, Stoller was able to communicate with his clients in ways that other photographers who didn’t know the ins and outs of architecture couldn’t. And this was essential to his body of work. He was more than a hired gun; he was a historian—he referred to himself as “an archaeologist of the contemporary”—and an evangelist for a movement.
“Stoller was a de facto architect with a camera, rather than a photographer looking at architecture,” Serraino writes. “He thought that through his photography he was advancing architecture, explaining it, and furthering its advancement; his desire was to win the favor of modern design’s skeptics and the general public.”
To that end, Stoller tried to depict architecture as it was. He often photographed buildings from the perspectives a person who was physically at the site would naturally see. He planned his views, noting the time of day that would show particular angles in their best light. He also photographed buildings multiple times, affording him new perspectives. He strove for honest, objective representation.
“With photography we can twist, distort, cheat, lie, and perform a number of tricks to make a mediocre work of architecture appear to be a great one,” Stoller once said. “A truly great work, however, needs no distortion.”
While he downplayed making pretty pictures and thought of himself as an objective documentarian, the irony of it all is, his photographs are among some of the most romantic images of architecture there are.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show that Stoller won the AIA’s Architectural Photography Medal in 1961, not the AIA Gold Medal, which went to Le Corbusier that year.