Ezra Stoller | ESTO Photographics
By Pygmalion Karatzas
Ezra Stoller was born in Chicago in 1915 and studied architecture at New York University. Graduating with a degree in Industrial Design, Stoller began to photograph architecture. During WWII he worked with photographer Paul Strand at the Army Signal Corps Photo Center. After the war, Stoller continued his career with industrial and scientific commissions as well. Over the next forty years, many modern buildings were recognized and remembered by the images Stoller created. He 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 among others. In 1961, he received the first Gold Medal for Photography from the American Institute of Architects. In his later years, Stoller founded Esto Photographics, a photo agency specializing in images of the built environment, with assignment work and a comprehensive picture library, connecting photographers with designers, publishers and other related professionals. The firm is currently directed by his daughter Erica Stoller.
In this feature we are pleased to present a selection from the Ezra Stoller archive, a sample of the agency’s current photographers, and a discussion about architectural photography with the Director of Esto Photographics, Erica Stoller.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Ms. Stoller thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss the work of ESTO. Could you tell us about its history, how it started?
Erica Stoller: Ezra Stoller was concerned about the entire process of describing and presenting architecture through photography. With this in mind, he was careful about his equipment and film, about the work he did at the site, then about processing the film and presenting the final photographs. When photographing on site, he worked with one photography assistant; at the studio, there were technicians for black and white and for color work. Eventually, the lab facility grew to provide services to commercial clients and for photographers. And as Stoller grew older and did less work himself, Esto began to represent a group of other photographers for management, production and also added their images in the Esto stock archive as well.
PK: The relationship between architect/designer and photographer is at the heart of this type of photography. From your experience what makes such a relationship successful on both sides of the equation?
ES: I believe that the best photographers of architecture understand the design process and can convey the architect’s intentions. Working with space and light, the photographer has the technical skills to translate and create two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space.
PK: Could you share with us some moments/stories from your father’s career that capture his personal approach and vision for architectural photography?
ES: He often mentioned the problem he had at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Tower. It was difficult to capture the opaque quality and show the interior form. Photographing the building with light from the behind was the solution. The most telling image was made facing east, very early in the morning, just as the sun was coming up.
To photograph architecture, one has to read the weather like a farmer, the clouds like a sailor. Some projects need clear skies; for others, hard shadows are troublesome, and soft light is better. Where is the sun? At what time of day? And where will it be at this time tomorrow? Next week? Next month?
PK: From the 1950s to the present, architectural photography has progressed/changed in many ways. Which aspects of the work you feel remain relevant and valuable today and which have changed irreversibly?
ES: A big change in the middle of the last century was the move from black and white to color. At this point one cannot speak of then and now without considering the film/digital divide. With film, one had to be careful and deliberate. There were a limited number of exposures that one could make… and remember the cost, of course. The photographer was an editor before making any images. Now…shoot and shoot and shoot….and then edit later. Or maybe don’t edit at all. Every photograph stops time. Today it seems that many photographers have abdicated their responsibility to decide which moments are worth saving.
PK: Which are some key points about the business aspects of architectural photography from the photographer’s point of view as well as from agencies and the other outlets/media of image dissemination that best serve the profession?
ES: Well, images are everywhere. It’s difficult to control dissemination and quality. Delivering images that are legitimately licensed is easier, but protecting the intellectual property is increasingly problematic. Here’s a peculiar story: Someone called us to license an image. We discussed the anticipated use, arranged a fee, and worked out the payment. Now, to deliver the image. “Oh,” he said, “I have the image. I got it from Google”. So, why, I wonder, did he even contact us at all? Nor can one understand the future of our business plan.
PK: From the large archive of the agency which are your observations about the aspect of personal styles and the broader sub-genres in photography for the built environment?
ES: Every photographer has an individual approach, a personal “eye”. Yet in this kind of work, one expects a relatively objective look. Too much artistry can interfere with the architecture. We consider ourselves journalists first, artists, second. If there is a Stoller legacy, it’s for the photographer to make a clear statement describing the work of the architect. With that in mind, of course, the architect is often surprised and delighted by the range of images showing more than what had been anticipated or imagined about how the space is used and how it appears at different times of day.
PK: Some photographers work both on assignments and on personal projects, which adds an artistic aspect to architectural photography and a freedom to expand the subject matter beyond work that functions only for specific clients. What are your thoughts about the value of personal projects for the photographers and for the cultural role of architectural photography in general?
ES: Many photographers augment their assignment work with personal projects. This is considered enriching and healthy. Others do other things…. hike, sail, cook, eat, read. Who’s to say what expands one’s sensitivity or improves one’s professional photographs? The best thing about personal work, it seems to me, is that it keeps you busy when you’re not otherwise employed.
PK: Could you introduce for us the photographers currently collaborating with ESTO and tell us a few words about how this collaboration works?
ES: It may seem that the photographers work for us. In fact, we are working for them, providing a range of experience, consultation and business back-up.
PK: How do you see the shift from print to web publications affecting the future of the profession?
ES: Film to digital. Print to electronic. So it goes. For print, there is a set standard to describe the potential use and related fees that makes it possible for a photographer and a photo archive to exist. With electronic distribution, one is working from the accepted “norm” that everything’s free and nothing has value. It’s a strange time. Yet good buildings are built and good photographs are made, too.