Ezra Stoller Story

Maybe this is just an old timer's reminiscing but I know why I am thinking about this one as I've being  going to some events that involve architecture, architects and architectural photography in the past few weeks.

Ezra Stoller is universally recognized as the dean of American architectural photography. His effect upon the medium and upon architecture itself cannot be underestimated.

Ezra Stoller Portrait

Ezra Stoller was born in Chicago in 1915, grew up in New York and studied architecture at NYU. As a student, he began photographing buildings, models and sculpture; in 1938, he graduated with a BFA in Industrial Design. In 1940-1941, Stoller worked with the photographer Paul Strand in the Office of Emergency Management; he was drafted in 1942 and was a photographer at the Army Signal Corps Photo Center. After World War II, Stoller continued his career as an architectural photographer and also focused on industrial and scientific commissions. Over the next forty years, he became best known for images of buildings.
Many modern buildings are recognized and remembered by the images Stoller created as he was uniquely able to visualize the formal and spatial aspirations of Modern architecture. During his long career as an architectural photographer, Stoller worked closely with many of the period’s leading architects including Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, I.M. Pei, Gordon Bunshaft, Eero Saarinen, Richard Meier and Mies van der Rohe, among others. Stoller died in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 2004.

Source: Esto Photographics

A few days ago I went to a wonderful panel discussion at the BSA (Boston Society of Architects) in which Ezra 's daughter Erica showed us some of her father's iconographic photographs from the 1960's and 70's. One of the things that came out of the evening was the sense that, as photography became so crucial for architects to show their designs, and in particular, that Ezra Stoller became known as THE architectural photographer of the time that architects were designing their buildings so that they would look good in an Ezra Stoller photograph! Remarkable. What an oddly powerful position to be in.

At any rate, my story is considerably smaller.

The first couple of years after finishing with an MFA at RISD were difficult. Those years, 1974 and 1975,  I couldn't get work. I was trying to teach photography at the university level and applied for a few jobs but didn't get any. One rejection came particularly hard as I'd interviewed to be the one full time professor in photography at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. I'd gotten all the way up to being interviewed by the president of the school and meeting key board members but was too young, too green and didn't get the position.

As I hadn't been getting teaching jobs I thought I might become an architectural photographer. I had some skills as I'd worked with a 4 x 5 view camera for a few years and owned one. But I didn't know what it took to be an architectural photographer. So, naive young man that I was, I called Ezra Stoller. He agreed to meet with me and so I arrived at his firm called ESTO outside of NYC at the agreed upon time and date, thinking that maybe he'd let me assist him. Right away he established who I was and what my qualifications were (or weren't, as it  turned out). He said he hated all "these MFA's" as they were pretentious, superior and too good "to push a broom" or "go out to get coffee". He told me his ideal assistant was some high school kid with a good work ethic and no desire to learn anything at all about photography. Did I think I was too good to push a broom and fetch coffee? Absolutely. Did he cut me down to size? Sure did. I left that interview properly chastened and humbled by the experience. Thanks to Ezra for that.

He showed me around the place. He ran a photography business at ESTO, which employed other photographers besides himself and was a full photo lab, processing film, and making prints for clients as well as the in house photographers.

Towards the end of the time I had with him, he asked, "What's your last name again?" I told him, "Rantoul" and he said "Rantoul Rantoul. Come with me." And we went down the stairs, as the building had been a bank in a previous life and in the basement was the vault. In it was where he kept his archive of negatives and proof prints.  He shuffled through a few files, labeled by year, and found 1946, the year our house in New Canaan, CT was built. He pulled out a print with "Proof" stamped across it that was a black and white photograph of our living room in the house where I grew up. He had photographed the house for a magazine called House Beautiful. He handed me the 8 x 10 print saying I could keep it. I still have that print somewhere. Thanks to Ezra for that too.

I kept up with him over the next few years, calling him occasionally to let him know I was still hungry. He never had anything for me, as an assistant, and to be truthful, within a year or two I was very busy teaching. But I respected his being straight with me as he'd woken me up to the reality of my position; too young, too pretentious and too inexperienced.

A couple of years later he called and said he was shooting a new building at Dartmouth College (Ironic: the same school that had shot me down for a teaching position a few years earlier), and asked if I wanted to drive up for the day. I did and got to watch a real master at work; setting up lighting, working his assistant (and me) hard, for a full day of shooting that were photographs of mostly interiors, balancing outdoor light with indoor florescent and incandescent light sources, being sent out to pick up a take-out lunch with yes, coffee too. Pretentious is never good, whether you're 27 or 67. Finally, thanks Ezra, for a few a lessons that I still practice today.

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Permalink | Posted March 29, 2014