Photo by Ezra Stoller. Design Research, a store in Cambridge, Mass., 1969,
designed by Benjamin Thompson.
Currently there is an exhibit of the work of Ezra Stoller at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City.
Stoller (1915-2004) was a pioneer of modern American architectural photography. He photographed for such famous architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Erro Sarrienen.
I love how the inside merges with the outside in this twilight photo. I also love how this photograph breaks some of the “rules” of quality architectural photography. There is a dead tree, a parked car and melting puddles of snow, which are all elements that shouldn’t be in a “perfect” photo. These elements provide context and also make the image more real.
Photo by Ezra Stoller. Hirshhorn Museum, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Washington, D.C.
Stoller’s career aligned with the ascendancy of modernism in architecture. Grand and simple forms predominate in his tonally beautiful black & white work.
You can read more in this NY Times article.
At Renninger’s Antiques Market in Adamstown, Pennsylvania, I purchased some old photographs from a vendor. I paid five dollars for this tintype. Once I started examining it, I wanted to know: When was this photograph taken? Who are the people in the photograph?
Tintype of Henry Stehman and John Stehman, Lancaster, PA circa 1870s
Using the internet I have discovered the following. Gill’s City Gallery was a photo studio run by William L. Gill from 1859 to 1882.
Reverse side of paper holder for tintype from Gill's City Gallery, Lancaster, PA
The names Henry Stehman and John Stehman are written on the paper holder. The two men in the photograph certainly look like brothers. Having asked several people, the consensus is that these men are somewhere between twenty-four and twenty-eight years old.
There was a Henry B. Stehman who was born in 1852 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania who went on to become a famous doctor who treated lung diseases and who founded a sanatorium in Pasadena, California. While I don’t have definitive proof that the man on the left is this Henry Stehman, the other evidence supports this possibility. If Henry was twenty-five when the photo was taken, then the photo was taken in 1877, a date that is consistent with the years of operation of Gill’s City Gallery and the use of the tintype process.
Tintype circa 1870s
Unlike many photo processes, which have a negative and can easily produce multiple copies, tintypes are one-of-a-kind. Often a multiple lens camera was used to simultaneously take four images onto one metal plate. The developed image was then cut with tinsnips into four separate photos, hence the name “tintype”. With a black border on the left and top, the Stehman portrait looks like the upper left corner of a larger plate that was imprecisely snipped from the larger sheet.
A photograph has an uncanny ability to capture personality and detail whether it’s a tintype from the 1870s or a digital image from 2011.
Four lens tintype camera cira 1860s, image courtesy of The National Museum of American History, creative commons license.
Image from flickr.
In the April 19, 2010, issue of the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl has a review of the Cartier-Bresson retrospective.
In the review he quotes Robert Frank, (the photographer known for his book The Americans) commenting on Cartier-Bresson, “He traveled all over the goddamned world, and you never felt that he was moved by something that was happening other than the beauty of it, or just the composition.”
This morning I have pondered this quote and looked at many images by Frank and Cartier-Bresson with the intent of pairing their images to show Cartier-Bresson’s strong composition and lack of compassion and Frank’s indifference to composition and his empathy with his subjects’ emotions. The reality of their work is that it is complicated.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Telavi, Georgia, Visitors from Kolkhozy to the 11th Century Alaverdi Monastery", 1972
Robert Frank, "Funeral—St. Helena, South Carolina", 1955
In comparing Cartier-Bresson’s photo of Georgians on a picnic at a monastery with Frank’s image of an African-American funeral I am struck by how strong the composition and arrangements of forms is in both images. Yes the placement of every element: the monastery in the distance, the rake of the car fender, the placing of each of the people, even the picnic blanket all fall into place, as if sketched by a painter instead of aligned by a photographer.
The funeral photo has its own pictorial structure with three figures receding in space. On the question of empathy, the picnickers appear a bit nervous and dwarfed by the landscape. While the foreground mourner is lost in his thoughts and to me almost seems to be playing a harmonica. Trying to determine who the most compassionate photographer presents one of the dilemmas of photography–how accurately does our reading of a photograph reflect the reality of the emotion state of the people in it.
Robert Frank, "Political Rally-Chicago", 1958
Henri Cartier-Bresson, "Boston", 1947
Another pair of Frank and Cartier-Bresson images of people lying in parks shows Cartier-Bresson’s focus on people arranged in the picture plane and Frank’s direct confrontation of a man lying shoeless on the ground. As to which photo displays its subjects’ emotions more strongly, I’m not really sure.
And consider this photograph of a shoeless New Yorker. Was it shot by Frank or Cartier-Bresson?
Two weekends ago while visiting friends at the New Jersey shore, my wife and I paid a visit to an architectural salvage yard, called Recycling the Past, located in Barnegat, NJ. Their enormous lot is a treasure trove of building pieces. As a fan of buildings I was in heaven. There are Victorian mantelpieces, signs from 1950s amusement parks, terra cotta decoration from 1920s buildings, 15-foot stone columns from a closed state mental hospital and on and on.
Recycling is in vogue. We recycle cans, paper and glass at curbside to minimize trash put into landfills. The reason to recycle buildings is more complex.
In America buildings often have short life spans. A thirty-year baseball stadium is obsolete, whereas in southern France I visited a Roman stadium 2000 years old that is still used for bullfights and rock concerts.
When a house or commercial building is deemed too expensive to renovate or unsuited to its site’s next use, then it’s knocked down. Pre-World War II buildings often have a level of craftsmanship and quality of materials that current buildings frequently lack. This makes the well-crafted fragments of older buildings valuable to buyers who can appreciate and afford them.
My emotions ranged from delight and wonder at seeing beautiful salvaged objects that may find new homes to sadness and melancholy contemplating the decay and destruction that led to these objects being orphaned from their original settings.
Enough claw footed bathtubs to shoot lots of Cialis TV ads.
Detail of copper panels from an old Atlantic City school.
This past weekend I visited Washington DC and saw the exhibit at the National Gallery
of Robert Frank’s photographs for his 1959 book, The Americans
. This book of Frank’s black & white photographs of America has been one of my favorite photo books since I first saw it in the late 1970s.
Casual and seemingly off hand, the photographs in The Americans paint a portrait of America in the 1950s vastly different than the sanitized image of the country portrayed in Life magazine and Saturday Evening Post. As a European outsider, Frank explored aspects of American culture that are not its best side–the racial divide between blacks and whites, the lonely interiors of bars, the sadness of the wrong side of the tracks.
For me some of the revelations of the exhibit at the National Gallery include seeing contact sheet and work prints of images that never made it into the final book. Frank shot 27,000 images in 35mm black & white on his various trips around the US in 1955 and 1956. He made rough prints of about 1,000 of those and ultimately pruned those down to 83 images. It fascinated me to see many strong images that never made the final cut.
The beauty and poetry of the book is the sum of all of the images rather than the heroics of any one specific image. There is a rhythm to the sequence of images in the book. Frank documented America’s obsession with cars, the ubiquitous presence of American flags, and the despair and mystery of funerals, gas stations, diners and jukeboxes.
Another revelation to me was seeing the cover of the original published version of the book. Unable to find an American publisher willing to publish the book, Frank found a French publisher who issued the book in 1958. Copies of that version were on display. The cover features light blue graph paper representing a modern building coupled with a whimsical ink drawing of a sidewalk, pedestrians, a street lamp and an awning in a style similar to Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker illustrations in the 1960s. This cover is bizarre because it is so different and disconnected from the dark and brooding photographs within.
In his introduction to the book, Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road, and a friend of Frank’s sums up, “Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see? ….To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes.”