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Ezra Stoller, 89; his photos influenced modern designs

Ezra Stoller, who died Friday at age 89, was recognized as the leading American architectural photographer of the 20th century. His brilliant photographs helped establish the hegemony of the modern movement during his heyday, which lasted from the 1930s into the 1970s.

So influential was Mr. Stoller's work that many architects didn't feel a building was complete until it had been ''Stollerized." He came to have as much influence on architectural taste as did the architects whose buildings he recorded.

He photographed the work of most of the architectural giants of the time: Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, Eero Saarinen, Gordon Bunshaft, Marcel Breuer, Paul Rudolph, Richard Meier. In recent years, his photography has come to be regarded as fine art in its own right, and his prints and portfolios are in museum collections and sell for substantial prices. A Stoller exhibit is currently on view at the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown.

Mr. Stoller was the seminal figure in a group of talented American photographers who first emerged about 1930. They were devoted modernists and their images were crucial in introducing modern architecture to the larger culture. Architects, in turn, were influenced by the photographers, and designed in the hope of inspiring a great image from Mr. Stoller, Julius Shulman, Balthazar Korab, Hedrich Blessing, Joseph Molitor, Morley Baer, or Cervin Robinson, to cite but a few of the best known.

Mr. Stoller had no formal training in photography. He was the son of a union president in the garment industry. His father was, he said in a recent interview, ''an anarchist but not a communist." The boy attended the Modern School in New Jersey, a progressive-education school he later described as ''radical and freewheeling." His belief in modernism, and in modernism's utopian ambitions, perhaps derived from this background.

As a youth, Mr. Stoller wanted to be an auto mechanic until, at trade school, he was seduced by a course in mechanical drawing. ''I was fascinated by interpreting the three-dimensional world in two dimensions," he recalled. He studied architecture at New York University, where he got hooked on photography -- ''the gadgetry appealed" -- and began his career by photographing the work of other students.

''Photography is space, light, texture, of course," Stoller once said, ''but the really important element is time. That nanosecond when the image organizes itself on the ground glass." He would wait for days, if necessary, for the instant when light and form were momentarily perfect.

Beyond that, Mr. Stoller's special gift was his penchant for commenting on the architecture by including nonarchitectural elements in the photo. An example is his legendary shot of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum in New York. A pale Buick fills the lower foreground, its curvaceous shapes and sharp fins making visual rhymes with the building beyond. The Buick places the Guggenheim in space but also in time, reminding us that even this masterpiece is a product of the taste of its era. Then, deeper in the picture, we notice two black-clad nuns hurrying along the sidewalk. Their tiny, dark shapes bring out, by contrast, the pale cloudlike volumes of the museum.

Despite Mr. Stoller's fame, he never regarded himself as especially talented. ''I thought it was just that I worked pretty hard," he said. ''Until me, architects hired a photographer and told him what to shoot and he went out and did it. Architects were nonplussed by me. Few of them stayed for the shoot. They got bored."

Mr. Stoller's usual procedure was to walk the structure with a rough floor plan in hand. He would mark on the plan the best vantage points, and note the moment of the day when light would be optimal for each shot. He could be tyrannical. Once, photographing a house, he demanded that the owner move out while he did his work, which took three days. In a famous photograph of another house, by Marcel Breuer, Mr. Stoller himself piled up firewood in order to contrast its rough texture with the crisp modern lines of the architecture. Then he opened and adjusted a casement window and waited until the sun cast a perfectly angled shadow on the faade.

Mr. Stoller did fine color photography, but his genius was for black and white. He was a master of chiaroscuro, the abstract patterning of shadow and light, in a manner that sometimes evokes Hollywood films of the noir era. He almost always worked in very deep focus, with every detail from the foreground to the horizon pin-sharp. And he had a way of making photographs that work in more than one way.

''My photos," he once commented, ''tend to be confusing. I show a great many vistas." By that he meant that one could often find, in a single photo, a number of different framed views. An example is a shot of the Salk Institute in California, by Louis Kahn, where, Mr. Stoller said, ''there are I think nine separate areas you can view through, nine vistas."

In one of those vistas, a corner of the architecture frames a small slice of the infinite sky, standing perhaps for the infinite Pacific that we don't see. Mr. Stoller delighted in the Salk as complex, abstract sculpture, and, as usual, selected a view that had not occurred to anyone else.

Mr. Stoller was largely retired by 1980 and lived in Williamstown, but his work continues in the agency he founded in 1966, ESTO Photographics near New York. Now managed by his daughter, Erica, of Rye, N.Y., ESTO and its cadre of photographers are still leaders in the field.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Stoller also leaves a brother, Claude, an architect in California; his wife, Helen (Rubin); two sons, Evan of New Lebanon, N.Y., and Lincoln of Shokan, N.Y.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A private memorial service is planned for a later date, to be held in a studio in Manhattan.

Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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