It was easy to fall in love with modern architecture in America in the years following World War II. You didn’t necessarily have to appreciate the merits of new building materials and methods, the clarity of structural logic, or the flexibility of modular systems. Talented photographers, along with their editors and stylists, overlaid all the talk of usefulness and economy with an aura of serene beauty and carefree simplicity. There were at least two modes of pictorial seduction, as two new books clarify with loving detail. Maynard L. Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream recollects a kind of everyman's modernism centered around the suburban home. Ezra Stoller, Photographer envisions a modernism powered by master architects and encompassing not only the home but also institutions, corporations, and factories—spaces of civic life and work.
Both of these heavily illustrated books invite us to appreciate architectural photography as an art in itself, in the wake of a traveling exhibition of Stoller's work (2009–12) and a film documentary on his West Coast counterpart, Julius Shuman (Eric Bricker, 2009). Yet architectural photographers did not enjoy artistic autonomy in their own day. Photographers were hired to help sell architectural services and magazines. Fittingly, the two monographs at hand include critical essays and supporting documentation that reveal the social and economic context in which the images were produced. This was a curious era, quips Akiko Busch in the Stoller volume, "when the bedrooms were chaste but the laundry rooms voluptuous."
Parker's career was made by the influential House Beautiful editor Elizabeth Gordon. Just as the postwar domestic boom got under way, Gordon gave Parker a prominent role in her campaign for an easygoing, consumer-friendly "American Style" Modernism—a retort to the more austere and allegedly undemocratic "International Style." Parker's images speak not only of good taste and informal living, but also, in a latent way, of the phenomena of suburbanization, Cold War tensions, and confining gender roles. Stoller, who took courses in architecture and industrial design at New York University, got his break as a photographer with Architectural Forum and Fortune magazine. Although one of his earliest big paychecks came from shooting colonial-style homes for Ladies Home Journal, he was from the start most sympathetic to modernist aesthetics and ethics.
Stoller developed a knack for capturing in a two-dimensional composition the thing that architects most want to communicate: design intent. That is why Stoller’s photographs help us "to understand the aspirations" of architects, writes former Progressive Architecture editor John Morris Dixon, FAIA. To illustrate spatial relationships in depth and scale, Stoller mastered the use of natural and artificial light, the latter always dissimulated. He was a visual “storyteller” and “a ferocious and energetic worker,” according to Erica Stoller, his daughter, who now heads the Esto photography agency that Stoller established in 1965.
Andy Grundberg, longtime writer for The New York Times and professor at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, suggests that Stoller's work, for all its rigor and sharpness, belongs to the tradition of American landscape photography. A Stoller landscape, like an Ansel Adams landscape, vividly conveys symbolic as well as literal aspects of place while concealing its staged quality. Nature itself is an indispensable backdrop to architecture in many of Stoller’s compositions, but it is a passive, faux-virgin nature that mirrors the minimization of landscape architecture in the mid-20th century. The Parker book, meanwhile, does a good job making landscape architecture visible: first by crediting landscape architects in every possible photo, and second by commissioning an essay on the subject by the Los Angeles Times's Christopher Hawthorne. Parker’s photos—also quite rich in spatial narrative—consistently fuse house and garden to suggest indoor-outdoor living. The paradigmatic formula was a Cliff May ranch house with a Thomas Church landscape design.
Back when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe could only dream of building a skyscraper, he drew his famous Friedrichstrasse project of 1921 as a lone glass tower in a city of masonry. Contrast was the essence of the modernist avant-garde. Three decades later, Stoller elegantly contrasted Mies’s completed Seagram building with older buildings nearby, such as the New York Racquet Club designed by Charles Follen McKim. Similarly, Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Building looks impressive when framed by the weathered stone and architectural ornament of its neighbors, but it looks banal in pure elevation, even through Stoller’s lens.
Among the gems culled from the 50,000-image Stoller archive are the Kit Peak Solar Observatory by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, a bifurcated structure that burrows into the earth and shoots diagonally toward the sky; Wright’s Johnson Wax Building, with its glass-tube walls forming an ethereal membrane at dusk; and the interior of Louis Kahn’s Olivetti-Underwood Factory, humming with machines and workers—as full of motion, Nina Rappaport observes, as Stoller’s architectural photographs are full of stillness. The authors include an unexpected portfolio and essay on Stoller’s treatment of “Man and Machine,” from a Heinz ketchup factory to assembly lines for pills and vinyl records.
Although Parker and Stoller pictured modern architecture in subtly different ways, they occasionally had overlapping assignments. Both men, for example, shot Wright’s Taliesin and Taliesin West, and both photographed some of House Beautiful’s annual Pace Setter Houses, which paralleled Arts & Architecture’s Case Study Houses. Both photographers took strenuous efforts to get the shots they desired. Parker can be seen focusing his camera from atop sloping bungalow rooftops and narrow lintels. And we see Stoller, no stranger to “daredevil setups,” according to Erica Stoller, with his tripod and cloth, perched several stories high on a platform built ad-hoc upon the back of a truck, shooting a suburban office complex. Like modern architecture itself, Parker and Stoller’s views are meant to feel all but inevitable, as if their creator merely executed a technical necessity. But these glimpses behind the scenes expose the photographers’ conceit—and their great creativity within narrow constraints.
• $65, Ezra Stoller, Photographer, by Nina Rappaport and Erica Stoller. Yale University Press. Nov. 2012.
• $65, Maynard L. Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream, Edited by Jennifer A. Watts. Yale University Press. Nov. 2012.