Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Stoller Recap

Last night at the Center for Architecture I attended The Photography of Ezra Stoller, a panel discussion with Erica Stoller, Kenneth Frampton, Brook Mason, John Morris Dixon, moderated by James Sanders (L-R below). What follows are some brief notes on the discussion.

The Photography of Ezra Stoller
[Panelists and moderator below an Ezra Stoller photo of TWA Terminal by Eero Saarinen.]

The evening began with a slideshow of four iconic New York City buildings shot by Ezra Stoller: the United Nations by Wallace K. Harrison (with Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer, and others), the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright, the Seagram Building by Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson, and the TWA Terminal by Eero Saarinen. (A fifth building, a surprise to panelists and audience alike, was a Usonian House by Frank Lloyd Wright installed on the site of the Guggenheim before construction on the museum started.) As the primarily black-and-white photos cycled on the wall without comment, a quiet overtook the room, a hushed appreciation; the occasional response came in the juxtaposition of color photos after b/w photos of the same building shot from the same spot. Next Erica Stoller gave a brief history of her father, who she recalled as "a small man with a very big camera." Her stories of tagging along with him during photo shoots were short but vivid and poetic. To Erica he would know the location and movement of the sun to the point of willing it.

Moderator James Sanders -- author of one of my favorite books on New York City, Celluloid Skyline -- then laid out the three-part structure for the discussion: (1) Why are Stoller's photos so appealing? (2) What is the power and influence of the photos? (3) How do we understand architecture and cities through photography? By the time the last question from the audience was answered about an hour later, these questions weren't sufficiently answered, and most of the time was spent on first two questions. But isn't that the case with most discussions? They are like philosophy, where asking questions and seeing where the dialog goes are of the utmost. In general the discussion was a collection of statements in response to Sanders' questions, each with their particular perspective yet with very little back-and-forth. Dixon, who edited the slideshow with Erica Stoller, spoke from the publisher's point of view; Mason spoke from the art and gallery side or photography appreciation; Frampton brought his deep historical knowledge to the panel; and Erica Stoller naturally brought a personal perspective to the discussion.

There was a general consensus on the quality of Ezra Stoller's photography, in the perspectives presented, the quality of light, the use of color, and the framing of people in shots (when present), even though not all of his photos approached the iconography of some of his well-known shots. For me the discussion was most interesting near the end when Sanders in particular explored how photography impacted mid-20th-century architecture. He asked about the relationship between architects' designs and the photographic representation of their projects. A good example is Stoller's shot from the Seagram Building's lobby towards the Racquet and Tennis Club across Park Avenue: Mies's symmetrical relationship to the older building is clear in Stoller's photo but not really evident otherwise. Here photography clarifies intention and bolsters Modernism by playing down its break from what came before it. Frampton contended that Julius Schulman and Richard Neutra in Southern California had such a strong rapport that the buildings were in effect a collaboration. To a lesser degree the same could be said about Stoller and Gordon Bunshaft/SOM, even though each always worked together.

One of the last comments of the night, by Sanders, showed even more appreciation than just comments on formal qualities. He focused on a view of the Seagram Building from the north, across Park Avenue, with the edge of the Lever House along the right edge and the vacant lot directly north of the main subject allowing an unimpeded view of Mies's slab in all its glory. This shot, as much a product of circumstance as any, was highlighted for doing two things: (1) illustrating the contextual relationship of the bustle behind the glass slab, something played down in histories of architecture; and (2) recording the change to New York City arising from the 1961 Zoning Ordinance, which allowed plazas and slabs and took over this section of Park Avenue. Stoller's photos may be considered as celebrations of the architecture they focus upon, but this iconic image and others become such because of the things incidental to the building. In this regard, Stoller's ability to appreciate these contextual cues and capture them from the right spot should be what today's photographers and architects learn from him.