I was born into the world documented by Ezra Stoller, into that contagion of post-war, don’t-look-back American optimism that proliferated even in my native South. My father and his siblings had left the farm, laden with Depression-era memories, for the factories and their promise of a portal to a better, less backbreaking life. Car love possessed us. In our new low-lying ranch house, sleek blonde wood furniture sequestered in the unused living room; a white pedestal table with aqua swivel chairs and a new dishwasher and clothes dryer graced the kitchen. In magazines strewn over the coffee table in the den, I, like other far-flung viewers, first experienced the grand architectural and industrial landscape of this, our new America, through the lens of Ezra Stoller.
Stoller understood that we were up to something bigger than ourselves. His heroic and dramatic images show the sculptural night etched in the graduated facade of Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum, the curving dimensionality of Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, the soaring height of Bruce J. Graham and Fazlur R. Khan’s John Hancock Center, and other iconic buildings by the period’s architectural titans. Ezra Stoller: Photographer, published by Yale University Press, delves into Stoller’s archive of more than 50,000 works, conveying the sweep of his extensive output. Coauthored by his daughter, Erica Stoller, who manages Esto (the photographic agency he founded in 1966), and architectural critic Nina Rappaport, the book presents iconic as well as lesser known images.
In Stoller’s America, workers made televisions in Queens and calculators in Pennsylvania. Conveyor belts snaked through Life Savers and Heinz Ketchup factories, all photographed with the same attention to vantage point, lighting conditions, line and texture that he brought to architecture. These lesser-known images are part social realism, part modernist idealism, shot as projects for magazines like Fortune or as commissions for companies like IBM. In these posed shots, we see the working man as hero, the working woman as heroine, both at the center of the industrialist dream. In one photograph, the metal face of a bank vault glows with the luminosity of a studio portrait of Grace Kelly. Sharp and beautiful, these images show us the true breadth of Stoller’s work — World Fairs, construction sites, hydroelectric dams, printing plants.
We were a country doing and making, and Stoller showed us that. He met the challenge of depicting industry and the function- In his images, we see what things were, but we also come to know their social essence and cultural significance. al through the abstraction of photography’s two-dimensional surface. In his images, we see what things were, but we also come to know their social essence and cultural significance. As Rappaport writes, “He is really focused on the worker in motion…It was a time of prosperity, and he really captures this.”
Born in Chicago in 1915, Stoller attended a technical trade school, where a drafting class inspired him to study architecture. Later, at the School of Architecture and Allied Arts at New York University, he supported his studies by photographing buildings, models and sculptures with a Linhof box camera bought with $15 he borrowed from an uncle. Once he decided to focus on photography, he never completed his architectural degree requirements, graduating instead in 1938 with a degree in industrial design.
Stoller came into the workforce during the Great Depression, and his move to photography perhaps stemmed from his perfectionism: he didn’t have many industry-related connections and disliked the idea of working for another architect. Photography presented a practical way to excel. “He decided that this was going to be the medium with which he could best speak about architecture,” Erica Stoller writes. “By moving to the side he felt that he could contribute more.”
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2013 issue.