Walking into an exhibition of Ezra Stoller photographs induces a specific kind of vertigo. Tightly grouped zones of square, white frames regiment the wall planes of the white-cubic gallery space; within the frames, monuments of 20th century modernism continue to reflect their mysterious light, vanguards of the era now as embedded in the collective mindframe as the temples of antiquity. Stoller’s articulation of the various species of heroic modernism — whether gridded (Seagram Building), biomorphic (TWA Terminal at Idlewild), or volumetrically motley (Fallingwater) — classifies and idealizes them in ways architecture itself would have been unable to achieve without the great architectural photographers of the era.
The 50 images now on view at Chelsea’s Yossi Milo Gallery do something that is still surprising: they liberate the architectural photograph from its original client/media context, allowing its technical precision to generate an aura of high artistry. This move is still relatively recent for the genre, which has hovered between its two constituent industries — architecture and photography — and their wildly divergent, yet inextricable, practices. Whether in the service of the architect, the developer, or the press, the priorities of the architectural photograph have almost always been to record in order to promote. Therefore, this mode of photography has had to shed its original context before it could be understood on its own merits. Like a lot of commercial work, the distance of time has seemed to deepen its perceived aesthetic value.
But unlike the photographers of shoes and perfume bottles during the rise of the product advertisement and the retail catalog, the architectural photographer of modernism had to convey a new supercategory of product quite unlike anything that had come before. Their toolkit included the inherent geometries of the buildings themselves, and the choices of perspective, depth, detail, staging, and lighting that would conspire to make these images as unforgettable as possible.
Stoller was canny at integrating the kinds of elements that in less careful hands are distracting (which is why architectural photography orthodoxy advises to avoid them or clean them up in post-production). Cars, foreground expanses of tarmac (complete with oil stains), roof guardrails, airplane wings: all of these demonstrated the kind of philosophical assimilation of the everyday that made modernism accessible to laypeople. And it was that very element — people — that Stoller was particularly unafraid to include in these machinelike environments, contrary to the bizarre fallacy that only the most recent generation of imagers such as Iwan Baan introduced the human figure into the architectural frame. Stoller deployed people to activate spaces and convey scale, demystifying spaces (as with spectators at the Guggenheim, or the deadpan businessman contemplating the street-visible vault of the Manufacturers Trust Company building). But he also used figures differently for other kinds of projects, for the opposite effect of conveying quotidian reality. One classic view of the Seagram Building, taken from a height at twilight, reveals a solitary figure at the edge of the otherwise empty front plaza, creating an ambiguity that alludes to the new sublime atmosphere of midcentury urbanity.
Stoller and other giants of his generation fixed a methodology and aesthetic approach that made sense for its era; or is that a truism that we can no longer really see past, due to the pervasive success of their work? It’s commonplace to think that seminal photographers have taught us to see their subjects. Currently, Stoller’s example is progressively being dismantled by photographers who started working in the wake of postmodernism and for whom the full digital arsenal of data-intensive image capturing and processing tools are the norm. For them, there are no more iconic views to create, because the built environment is now as volatile as the digital image. Stoller’s work had to contend with new monuments; today’s photographers have to contemplate a defaulting Dubai, non-place and junkspace. Their rejection of classical norms is gradually training us to unsee Stoller.
Today the architectural image seems to proliferate boundlessly. For this we confront Stoller with a predictable measure of nostalgia, but also as a marker for visual and design practices that were at their own crucial turning points. In the skeptical unseeing of the modernist legacy, today’s architectural photography primes our visual palate for a future where both architecture and photography are destabilized further. For now, when we resort to beholding the previous era, we can do so much like the solitary figure in the plaza of the Seagram Building: with a kind of awe, because awe is still permitted.
Ezra Stoller is on view at Yossi Milo Gallery at 525 West 25th Street until February 12th, 2011
Alan Rapp is the managing editor of the New City Reader, a temporary newspaper which recently completed its residency at New York’s New Museum. A graduate of School of Visual Arts’ Design Criticism MFA program, he edits, writes, and creates visual books in Brooklyn.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.