News
02.28.2013
Review> Aspirational Eyes
Two new books on architectural photography explore the legacies of Ezra Stoller and Maynard L. Parker.
Maynard L. Parker

Maynard L. Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream
Jennifer Watts
Yale University Press, $65

Ezra Stoller Photographer
Nina Rappaport and Erica Stoller
Yale University Press, $65

From the late 1930s through the early ’60s, few photographers documented the changing residential lifestyles of the nuclear family as extensively as Maynard L. Parker.

Crisscrossing the nation, primarily for House Beautiful magazine and Better Homes & Gardens, Parker made photographs that championed the slowly emerging modern esthetic of the suburban Ranch-style house and the impact of the postwar consumer extravaganza.

Editor Jennifer Watts has put together a nice monograph on the best, most typical images Parker produced, starting from the peak of his long career. Still, these images read much more as a fun history of postwar suburbia and the growth of Southern California than as a documentation of the period’s architecture. Flipping through this book reminds you of going through old Life magazines while watching Leave it to Beaver. Modern kitchen appliances, hi-fi systems, and table settings are given equal footing with the architecture. Watts also does a nice job of providing a context to Parker’s photographs.

   
Courtesy Yale University Press
 

His legacy, she explains, is mostly one that translates the design directives of his various editors, in particular Elizabeth Gordon of House Beautiful. Gordon didn’t always have to be on location for the shoot, as Parker had been well conditioned to give her exactly what she was looking for. Gordon had her own agenda of not just pleasing the advertisers but of steering her readership away from the International style and “left wing” architects, such as Gropius and Mies, and more toward her views of middle class living and a “station wagon way of life.”

Parker, working the same territory at the same time as Julius Shulman, was the go-to photographer for shooting the interiors of homes owned by Hollywood stars and the growing number of wealthy entertainment executives. As much as Shulman glamorized the Hollywood “house on the hill,” his aim first and foremost was about photographing the architecture. For Parker and the shelter magazines, it was about promoting a style and lifestyle that readers could either aspire to or at least live vicariously.

While Shulman was winning commissions from architects such as Pierre Koenig, Richard Neutra, and Raphael Soriano, Parker was left with shooting, for the likes of Quincy Jones, Leo Blackman, and Cliff May, housing developments, along with department store interior design service installations.

Although Watts has put together a book that shows Maynard Parker at his best, sadly this is still not saying a lot. Through House Beautiful Parker photographed a number of Frank Lloyd Wright projects and some of Edward Durell Stone’s work. But even the most avid Wright fan would be hard pressed to conjure up a single one of these images. Maynard Parker was clearly a hard-working, prolific, successful and very good photographer, just not a great one.


Judge Anderson Residences photographed by Parker in 1963.
Maynard L. Parker
 
 

The three pillars of midcentury architectural photography were Ken Hedrick in Chicago, Julius Shulman in Los Angeles, and Ezra Stoller working out of New York. They are not equal, though. It is no exaggeration to say Ezra Stoller is the father of modern architectural photography. Stoller’s compositional aesthetic and technical mastery place him in the 20th century photographic pantheon with the likes of Ansel Adams, Berenice Abbott, and Edward Weston—this despite his being an editorial photographer who never aspired to be a fine art photographer.

Ezra Stoller Photographer, edited by Nina Rappaport and Erica Stoller, the photographer’s daughter and the owner of the Esto Photographics agency and archive, is a beautiful compilation of one iconic image after another that Ezra Stoller created during a 40-year career. Stoller photographed most of the best midcentury architectural masterpieces and created truly memorable images. When we think of either Saarinen’s TWA terminal, Wright’s Falling Water and the Guggenheim Museum, Philip Johnson’s Glass House, or Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute, we invariably think of these buildings as an Ezra Stoller image.

And for many great buildings, Stoller’s images are all that is left, thereby becoming the last word. Examples include Wright’s Johnson Wax Tower and headquarters, Morris Lappidus’ Americana Hotel, and the New York State pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair. Stoller’s photographic style of simple, clean, graphic compositions was a perfect complement to the clean-lined and unadorned simplicity of modern architecture. Oft times Stoller could summarize a building in one shot encompassing all its essential elements.

It is not a stretch to say that some of the projects Stoller photographed are considered great architecture merely from the credibility Stoller’s images bestowed upon them. The Parking Garage in Miami, by Robert Law Weed, is a good example, showing each car carefully positioned without hindering the graceful floating effect of the stacked decking. This was truly “form following function.” Still, the structure was also just a parking garage. Yet Stoller’s image forces the viewer to appreciate it as a functional work of art. It is no surprise that Stoller accumulated a client list of the best modernist practices and firms throughout the country. In addition to those already named, Stoller shot extensively for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Mies van der Rohe, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, and I.M. Pei.

A typical Parker photograph.
Maynard L. Parker
 

Erica Stoller gives us just enough background detail about her father’s education (NYU architecture and industrial design), unlimited energy, and thoroughness in understanding his subject that we can better appreciate the creative source of the images. She shares how her father would not only scout a building for the best time of day to shoot but sometimes hold off until the right time of year. She then steps aside and lets the images speak for themselves.

Nina Rappaport, meanwhile, writes extensively about Stoller’s under-appreciated industrial images. Fortunately, many pages are dedicated to showing off his great catalogue of, once again, beautifully composed and technically near-perfect images. Stoller’s industrial images are the hidden treasure of his vast career catalogue. In his industrial imagery, as in his architectural images, the Stoller style is ever-present. Simple compositions are often dramatically lit, but not overly lit, to bring out the beauty of the subject, be it a pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, paper plant, or hydroelectric dam. It is some of these detailed images that have the fine art quality of an Edward Weston photo.

Overall, Stoller’s work was a perfect blend of compositional artistry, technical know-how, and patience. For someone who was simply documenting others’ work, Stoller blurred the line between the architect’s art and his own.

Whitney Cox

Whitney Cox is a New York-based photographer.