Ezra Stoller’s Modern America: The Guggenheim Museum
The great architectural photographer regarded Wright as a genius, and the feeling may have been mutual
In 1990, towards the end of his career, the brilliant architectural photographer Ezra Stoller gave an interview to Steve Simmons of View Camera: The Journal of Large-Format Photography. Towards the end of the piece, which is reproduced in our new book, Ezra Stoller: A Photographic History of Modern American Architecture, Simmons poses a fairly open-ended question: “you’ve had a chance to see some wonderful buildings haven’t you?”
Stoller responds, “True, but it’s not just the buildings, [it’s] the men who created them. It’s a great privilege to have been able to gain their respect and friendship.” Then Stoller adds: “Frank Lloyd Wright was the one genius I got to know well, and through the years we had some grand arguments (invariably one sided). I was in tremendous awe of him and I think he felt that I was okay.”
"Okay" is an understatement. Wright clearly prized Stoller’s photographs, more or less from his first encounter with the images, back in the late 1940s. Stoller first shot a Wright building in April 1946, when he was commissioned by Fortune magazine to photograph the architect’s winter home and school, Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Remarkably, Stoller had never seen Wright’s work, prior to his arrival at Taliesin West,” writes author Pierluigi Serraino in our new book. Yet Stoller recognised greatness quite quickly when he saw it. “He made no effort to hide his admiration for Wright from his wife, Helen,” explains Serraino, before quoting Stoller as saying: “Well, I guess there’s no question about it. This guy is a genius of a stature I’ve never met.”
What’s more, the author believes Wright harboured similar feelings. “He seemingly reciprocated Stoller’s enthusiasm by inviting him to photograph Taliesin West again three years later, with greater depth than he had done for Fortune. Wright also gave him several other jobs to document various exhibitions and magazine articles. Wright clearly approved of Stoller’s photographs of Taliesin, since he featured sixteen of his color transparencies in a 1947 MoMA exhibition titled Taliesin and Taliesin West. He also published a selection of Stoller’s work, together with that of Pedro Guerrero and Maynard Parker, in the second monographic issue of Architectural Forum dated January 1948, which Wright curated, designed and wrote.”
Wright couldn’t have approved of this specific image of the Guggenheim Museum in New York; the architect died six months before the completion of this final, great work. However, chances are, he would have liked it. When asked about the instructions he gave Stoller prior to the photographing of his buildings, Wright replied: “Ezra will know.”
Serraino argues that Wright was perhaps unique in his understanding of the importance of photography. “There was a clear correlation between the circulation of striking images and an architect’s ensuing fame,” the author explains in our book. “But the comprehension of what it takes to actually construct a successful image escaped the awareness of even the most talented among them, possibly with the early exception of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
And, while at the end of his career, Stoller might only feel able to Wright’s lukewarm admiration, Serraino uncovers documentary evidence of a deeper, more heartfelt sentiment. “Dear Ezra, You astonish me,” the author quotes the architect as saying in a letter to Stoller, held in the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, at Columbia University, in New York, “and I am pleased.”
For more astonishing images get a copy of Ezra Stoller: A Photographic History of Modern American Architecture - a captivating history of 20th-century Modern American architecture, as seen through the eyes of a legendary photographer. It's also one of the first books to present the breadth of Stoller's largely unseen archive of images, brought to life through exquisite color and duotone black-and-white reproductions. Find our more here.