Interview and transcript © 1991 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Born in Chicago in 1915, Ezra Stoller began taking photographs of buildings, models and sculpture to support himself while studying to be an architect at the New York University School of Architecture. He graduated in 1938. In 1940-41, Stoller worked with the photographer Paul Strand in the Office of Emergency Management. He was drafted in 1942 and worked as a photographer at the Army Signal Corps Photo Center during the Second World War.
Stoller’s work was first published in 1937. In December 1946, he joined ASMP and, during the ’50s and ’60s, he served a series of roles on the Board and various committees. From 1971 to 1973, he served as ASMP’s president. Because he had excellent personal relationships with leading architects, Stoller was tapped in the mid-’60s to represent ASMP photographers in discussions with the American Institute of Architects about standard practices for credits and licenses in the publication architectural images. Later, in the 1980s, he helped develop standards for use of photographs in architectural competitions.
He died from a stroke in October 2004.
During his long career as an architectural photographer, Stoller 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 and Mies van der Rohe. Many modern buildings are known and remembered by the images he created. He was uniquely able to visualize the formal and spatial aspirations of modernist architecture. The first time the American Institute of Architects awarded a medal for architectural photography, in 1961, it was given to Ezra Stoller.
He also founded Esto Photographics, an architectural photo agency that continues under the guidance of his daughter, Erica.
Interviewed by Mimi Leipzig and Kay Reese, May 30, 1991. The first part of the interview takes place in a Chinese restaurant across the street from his studio in Mamaroneck, NY; the second part is at his studio.
“He had a very sympathetic committee of idiots.”
Stoller: There was always a lot of scurrying around, when I became vice-president. Both the president and the treasurer had gone out and signed personal loans to carry the Society. And that was the condition of the Society at that point. The whole thing was in transition; we had about 700 members. It was shifting. The magazines were slowly going under, were dying, and were stopping the big magazine photography. And the administration before me was, most of the time, consumed with trying to figure out a new name for the Society. And it went on and on — it was absolutely unproductive. The amount of talk was just phenomenal. And in the meantime, the Society was slowly sinking in the mud, because it had no direction and it had no treasury.
We used to — and still do — spend time in the West Indies. We’ve had a house there for about 20 years; haven’t been there for a couple of years now, but we’re going to go back. But we were down there and it’s a very primitive location with regard to telephones.
We were there and one evening there was this phone call. The telephone was about a half-mile away, so I had to run down the hill. My father had been ill — he was in his 80s — and as I was going down the hill, I was trying to figure out what the next plane is; how do we get to it?
But instead, the call was from Morris Gordon. He worked for Western Electric, which was part of the phone company, so he could make phone calls for nothing. He wanted to know if I would be president. At that point, I was so relieved, I said yes. And then my troubles started.
I said that I wanted a strict treasurer. That was Mildred Grossman, who seemed okay, so it seemed like I’d be in pretty good shape. Well, at this point, the Society still had no money. It was saddled with a publication called Infinity, which absorbed all the money the Society had. And the guy who was editing Infinity would systematically go into the books, find out how much money there was and adjust his budget.
He had a very sympathetic committee of idiots, who at one point told me, “We want to get out Infinity, but we don’t want to be responsible for the financial aspects of the thing.” We could get no business done, because everything was concerned with Infinity and how were we going to pay the salaries and the commissions. But the worst of it was, it was a no-good magazine; it was really lousy. And I would go to the editor and say “There are certain activities as a Society, there are technical forums and conferences, that would be good if we wrote about in Infinity.” He disregarded all of that; he insisted on writing film criticisms. I guess he was building himself up for something, his own portfolio, but it was dreadful.
Then finally what happened was that the Board of Governors said, “If you don’t stop feeding Infinity with all the resources of the Society, we’re just going to have to go to court.” So I said, “Fine, I would love to do something, but you have to help me.” Well, nobody helped. So what I did — and this was kicking and screaming at the Board and everybody else — I had this whole thing elucidated on a referendum: Are we to continue Infinity or not? And they all accused me of sinking Infinity. But of course, the membership voted to discontinue it, and that’s what finally did it.
“The photographer gets paid immediately on submission.”
There were all sorts of things going on at the same time. One of our leading members, who was angling for a job at the EPA — I suspect he fancied himself another Roy Stryker, so he was going to get that job — was trying to get the Society to waive its minimums for the EPA. That would be a great feather in his cap, so the EPA could get his work done. And at the same time, he was undercutting the head of EPA in Washington, where he had some contacts apparently from his old days.
My whole feeling for the Society was, photography is just a medium. It’s like a typewriter. Photography as an art doesn’t interest me an awful lot — as a participant, though I like to look at it. But to me the purpose of the Society was simply this: You cannot go out on an assignment unless you know you’re secure. You cannot work well if you’re worrying about money all the time. And the position of the Society was to assure you of certain minimums.
At that point, things had changed; the magazines were no longer important, they were becoming less important. And whatever standards we had, the young people, who were just coming up, would always cut below the standards; they had to have the work.
And incidentally, we devised a way of working here [at Esto].
ASMP: Do you give them guarantees?
Stoller: No, we have a minimum, which is very low and just covers your time and expenses. There’s no fancy fee, or anything like that. And then the balance of what the fee will be depends on the outcome of the assignment. First of all, it drives a photographer to do the best he possibly can. And it encourages the client to commission more work because it’s not going to cost him that much. And the photographer gets paid immediately on submission for all the expenses and the base rate. The balance is paid on publication.
ASMP: That’s the way you work now?
Stoller: That’s the way we work. So the photographer doesn’t carry anything, and the client doesn’t have a great investment in pictures sitting in a morgue in a file.
“If they give you enough money, you’ll give them the camera!”
ASMP: That sounds like a very intelligent plan.
Stoller: I thought as president I could do it. But I couldn’t, so I considered myself a failure.
ASMP: By that time, was not there a code with a minimum day rate of $100?
Stoller: That minimum day rate was no good, because people were violating it all the time. And as you know, a minimum tends to become a maximum. And the whole nature of the Society was changing. The core of the Society had been the Life photographers, and they were gone, or going fast. So that was why I got involved, but it ended up a failure. But I did learn an awful lot about politics.
ASMP: It’s absolutely typical of any membership group, and in this case, peoples’ jobs were at stake. I remember some very bloody meetings that I attended.
Stoller: I was an independent figure because I had my own clientele. Whenever I mentioned this new thing, which I would do periodically, their eyes would all glaze over. “Oh, Stoller, he can do that because he’s got special clients.” But even today it needs doing.
ASMP: When you were talking about minimums, what kind of minimums were you talking about?
Stoller: The very first thing is, the man gets his expenses. At that time, a minimum would have been — even today, a minimum could be — $100 a day. Some photographers do get $1,600, but that isn’t paid until later on. Expenses have to come off first, and that generally is half the cost of a job. Expenses plus something extra to sweeten the thing. But the main thing is that you get paid when it’s used; and as many times as it’s used, you get paid. There is always that conflict about buy-out, and they say we can’t do that. Of course there’s such a thing as a buy-out. If they give you enough money, you’ll give them the camera!
“Unions today don’t get a sympathetic ear.”
ASMP: But this work for hire business …
Stoller: That also can be set very well. If it’s a buy-out, it’s ten times the day rate, or whatever the hell it is. And there’s no problem about any of that.
But my point was to encourage people to work and not deliberately break the Code, which they were doing all the time. Any young photographer would do it; he’d have to do it. And secondly, to encourage clients to commission more work, even if they thought they might not use it. It would give people a chance to work. That’s the reason I got so involved in that.
And then it became a very political thing. I was suddenly the villain to all of those people with regard to Infinity. And I don’t know if they ever looked at the magazine; it was worthless. I don’t know if you’ve seen what Infinity was.
ASMP: The Society has fought its way through such a lot and then, in the end, came up with $64,000 to help lobby to get the copyright law finally passed.
Stoller: Periodically, some smart lawyer would come in and say to himself, “This is an organization, they’ve got a little money,” and convince people they ought to be a labor union. Unions today don’t get a sympathetic ear with the public, and certainly not with a publisher, and they don’t stand a chance. But in the meantime, some lawyer has emptied the treasury for them. It happens periodically. And there are people who will bring this thing up.
ASMP: I went to a meeting of the New York chapter and I almost felt like saying, “Look, kids, we’ve been through this.”
Stoller: Through this three times.
ASMP: I could almost write the script. But they’re so desperate to get a fair day rate.
Stoller: And they’ll never win that issue. Incidentally, those day rates are all determined by the individual photographer. There’s no basic day rate. Some guys will work for $100 a day. If they want me, as a minimum they have to pay me $1,000; that’s because I don’t want to work. And on top of that, there’d be the page rate, the use rate, for when it is used.
“I was rarely the choice of the editors who hired me.”
ASMP: Is that the way you get paid, by a day rate and a use rate?
Stoller: That’s right. Day rate plus expenses on submission, and the final fee on publication. In my case it was especially pertinent, because I’d work for magazines and do a half-dozen assignments on one trip. So, how do you separate those things? You just don’t worry about it; it’s all treated as one assignment.
ASMP: You do half-dozen assignments on one trip for different magazines?
Stoller: I will do that. And in that case, I will prorate the expenses, and it makes it very cheap for them. I made a trip to Japan for Fortune, for Time Magazine, for IBM, for House Beautiful and it didn’t cost any of them very much.
ASMP: With 1,200 members in New York alone, it’s quite a scrimmage, and that’s only a small portion of the freelancers who are competing for assignments.
Stoller: The New York members function a little differently. Their method of operation is different.
ASMP: How so?
Stoller: Many of them have studios to maintain and they’re very expensive. And they probably do more magazine work — what magazine work there is. As I said, my interest in the Society was pretty strictly an economic one.
Another point that can be made is that, traditionally, people took this job [as ASMP president] as a way of enhancing their own positions. There were times were you could depend on the fact that what happened at a meeting one night would be in Ray Macklin’s hands the next day. And since Ray was a fairly insecure guy anyhow, he had no hesitation to use what he could.
ASMP: This was happening while you were president?
Stoller: Before I was president, but I could see it was happening. But my own particular strength was, I was rarely the choice of the editors who hired me. They were always told by the architects, “Yes, you can have this job if Stoller does it.” Much as they hated it, I’d be going out on jobs for two rival magazines at the same time and prorating the expenses.
ASMP: That must have given you a little bit of a high to do that.
Stoller: It’s just that I was so well-known and so in with the architects that the magazines had to maintain my friendship. You know how hungry they are for material. I had the jobs. I would decide which magazine got them. Well, generally, the decision was made by the architect, but they knew that they had to stay on my good side.
“It’s the uptown branch of the cloak-and-suit business.”
ASMP: Have you had an exhibition of your work recently?
Stoller: We just had one at Harvard. A picture was stolen, and the insurance paid for the whole thing. We are always turning down requests for shows because people don’t have adequate security or insurance. I go in there and sweat nights with the printer and make these selenium-tone prints. And I don’t do it out of the goodness of my heart. I’d like that show to be kept viable.
ASMP: Are you selling many prints?
Stoller: Erica [Stoller, his daughter] has somebody who is selling prints for me. Abrams just published a book of ours. And that’s another place photographers need protection: from book publishers.
ASMP: In what way do we need protection?
Stoller: It took them six months to get the contract. First they spend an inordinate amount of time telling you how the relationship between the editor and the photographer is one of trust. And then, once they convince you of that, they proceed to skin you mercilessly.
I knew Harry Abrams; I used to meet him at a friend’s house. He had a very good idea. He published books on which no royalties had to be paid. Michelangelo doesn’t get a royalty, Leonardo, Rembrandt — none of those guys get royalties. So he put the money into a fancy book. But now the outfit is owned by the L.A. Times-Mirror and, as far as I can tell, it’s administered by the same bookkeepers who ran the savings-and-loan places out there. And they do whatever they can to avoid paying royalties. Between the bookkeepers and the salesmen, all the decisions are made, and you have to fight like hell to get a book.
They sent me a contract and it took six months, and their excuse was that mine was such a special relationship. It was just right off the shelf. It was a boiler-plate contract, saying things like they would have the rights to distribute all the photographs in the book and to sell them. This was the cream of my files, I had half a million pictures in there.
ASMP: To distribute them, meaning …
Stoller: They could sell them, give them away, do whatever they wanted. And when I called them, I asked about that. And they said, “Don’t worry about that, all the photographers object to that.” This was a special contract that was being written.
ASMP: So they changed it.
Stoller: They didn’t change it enough. I thought I knew, and I had friends in the business. But my suggestion and advice is that, no matter how unimportant it seems, you should never get involved with a publisher, unless you have an agent.
ASMP: Or a lawyer.
Stoller: Well, an agent first and then a lawyer. There are no publishers with reputations anymore. It’s the uptown branch of the cloak-and-suit business. Even Bradley Smith. He doesn’t have any capital; he can’t give people proper advances.
“There’s no such thing as embarrassment to me.”
ASMP: Did you see some of the books from Bradley’s booth?
Stoller: Where is the booth now?
ASMP: The American Booksellers Association has its annual convention in New York this year. They’ve taken Javitz Center and they’ll have 13,000 people coming and going, and Bradley has taken a booth to promote his book.
Stoller: There’s a friend of mine who lives in Rye who is a big name in the publishing business now. His big contribution to the publishing business was getting books into the supermarkets.
ASMP: Abrams did the National Geographic anniversary book and ran into a lot of arguments and trouble. This friend of mine was the editor.
Stoller: I would never deal with them again. What I resent especially is that MIT Press wanted to run it …
ASMP: And Abrams convinced you to do it?
Stoller: No, a friend of mine, Gordon Bunshaft, an architect, is on the board of the Modern Museum with Paul Gottlieb, who’s the head of Abrams now. And Bunshaft engineered this thing. When I saw things were going badly, I hesitated to do it. What I should have done was gone to the publisher and said, “I better have another editor. This guy is a thief and a liar.” But I didn’t, because of Bunshaft; I didn’t want to embarrass him. And that’s a mistake; there’s no such thing as embarrassment to me.
There are still some good publishers, and they desperately try to keep up their reputation. But when a company is bought because of its name and is owned by something like the L.A. Times Mirror, there’s all sorts of pressures.
“I got the first medal they ever gave.”
ASMP: ASMP’s Guide to Business Practices clarifies a lot of these issues. Photo Methods recently did an article on how to assign a photographer. And they did not mention ASMP. I was so indignant, I wrote a letter and said, “Surely the author is too young to know the ropes.”
Stoller: You know, people who work for those magazines, they’re no-account people. They’re frustrated writers who can’t get a job somewhere else. Helen will pull out the New York Times and show me this article and I say, “This is a big paper; they’ve got a lot of space to fill by all sorts of people.” Use your head. If you know of a situation that is reported in a newspaper, how often do they get it right according to your knowledge? Not very.
ASMP: When I worked at the ASMP, we had to tape-record the meetings because people would come around the next day and say, “I did not say that.” A photographer came in once, so angry he was almost in tears, and he said, “That SOB has got to be blacklisted.” Whereupon I laughed, because he wasn’t on the membership list. You can’t blacklist somebody who’s not on the membership list.
Stoller: I recently met a photographer in Miami. I’d never heard of him. He told me he’d just been awarded the American Institute of Architect’s medal. I said, “Do you belong to the ASMP?” “Oh, no, I don’t want to belong to that. I’d like to work for Architectural Digest.” Which of course is the dregs when it comes to this work-for-hire thing. I said, “You don’t mind working to standards set by the ASMP, do you?” “Well, sometimes I work to the standards.”
ASMP: And he got a medal?
Stoller: He got the medal, which is one reason I’m glad I’m getting this honorary membership. I don’t know how much of a voice it will give me. I got the first medal they ever gave, but when they start giving them out to worms like this, they lose all meaning.
ASMP: How did you get started as a photographer?
Stoller: I was trained as an architect. When I got out of school in ‘38, there really wasn’t much architecture to do. And I couldn’t write about architecture, because I can’t spell. My first job was to photograph the new music shed at Tanglewood that Eero Saarinen had done. And Helen and I got 60 bucks to go up there, and free tickets to the concert. Sixty bucks was a lot of money then.
ASMP: That was in ‘38?
Stoller: They had just built the shed then.
ASMP: So you have an honorary membership in the …
Stoller: American Institute of Architects. As far as I know, it’s the first time they’ve given it to a photographer.
ASMP: And they gave it to you this year?
Stoller: I get it on the 11th of this month.
ASMP: Is there going to be ceremony?
Stoller: Oh, yes, break a bottle of champagne on my head and everything. It’s at the New York Historical Society.
“He was very resentful of what he called ‘the cannibals.’”
ASMP: When do you think that you joined the ASMP?
Stoller: Well, it must have been in the ’40s. One of the people I knew in the Army — Pimper, his name was; we all were instructors out there at the Army Signal Corp Photo Center — came around and convinced me that I ought to join. I notice he’s not on the list any longer, or wasn’t at that time.
ASMP: That’s an old list, 1954.
Stoller: He must have been originally.
ASMP: The Society started in ‘46, right after the war. It grew very quickly.
Stoller: Well, it was largely social, too. The guys had no place to turn, no place to go to.
ASMP: Was it your feeling then that it was a social organization?
Stoller: First of all, he convinced me that I ought to join. Then I had the strange feeling that he was a professional in a profession that I was earning a livelihood out of, and it seemed to me that I owed it something, and I was curious about it. I knew none of the other people, none of the other photographers and I was curious about some of them. I knew no other photographers, as a matter of fact; I was curious as to some of them and got to meet them. I wasn’t active at all, because I was very busy, I was doing an awful lot of work then. But it was interesting to get the literature and see it, and know who these people were. I never did get to know terribly many of them, even when I became an officer of the Society, because you don’t normally, in the normal course of events, get to meet very many people.
I got to meet more photographers when I became a member of the Famous Photographers’ Group. And, at that point I got to know those people fairly well, and, again, there were some better and some worse. I acquired a good deal of respect for some like [Irving] Penn and [Richard] Avedon, who were very bright people; so were some of the others. I was curious about the fact that Avedon was a member. He’s not here yet, but I guess he’d become a member later on.
ASMP: Yes, he did.
Stoller: But Penn would never be a member, although we were friendly. I asked him why. He was very resentful of what he called “the cannibals”; he’d come up with an idea and then inside of a month, everybody was running around the agencies with copies of his ideas. And, of course, they’d do them for a lot less, because he’s a very meticulous worker. So he never had much use for other photographers, with good cause.
“The whole thing became so polarized.”
ASMP: Did you have meetings at your house? Is that what you’re trying to tell us?
Stoller: No, we had meetings — where did we meet, anyhow?
ASMP: Bradley told us about some meetings at Freeport to start out with, and then there were different studios.
Stoller: Well, Bradley was one of the charter members.
I remember the group meetings, large membership meetings, were held at the Carnegie Institute, the Carnegie Foundation which, of course, rented space to anybody that wanted it. But the smaller meetings, I don’t know where they were held, maybe in a studio.
I never really had much of a studio till we got here. Then I felt that photographers ought to be able to take on assignments and not have to have that cloud hanging over them all the time as to whether they could spend an extra day, whether they could afford any more film. I thought they should be absolutely free of those worries, so that they could concentrate on the job. Then I became more active in the Society and tried to figure out ways that that could be. And one of the ways was, of course, what I told you about: revamping the whole system, because it needed it. At that point, magazine photography was no longer what it was all about.
ASMP: That was in the ’50s, wasn’t it?
Stoller: Yes, and nobody else was going to make a move to do anything about it, or even seemed to think that it was important. And, as I say, my efforts came to naught, even though I became president. The whole business of being president and what efforts I made were all wiped out by that whole Infinity brouhaha.
Eventually we decided that no more money could be poured down this drain, this bottomless pit of Infinity. It had to sink or swim. There would be a meeting and they would come up with, “If we had $2,000 we could do this or that.” And the treasurer would say, “Well, I think we ought to give it to them this one more time.” It was “one more time” to the point where she was absolutely of no use. I had nobody else. The whole committee was …. One of them got drunk at one point and said that their big job was how to get rid of me; that was that guy who worked for The Village Voice.
It was so stupid, and the whole thing became so polarized, and it was so difficult to get anything done, impossible to get anything done. I mean, we should have moved out of those quarters a long time ago; we couldn’t get anybody to take an interest in it. And the Lincoln building was too small, it wasn’t the right place. Someone said that Cooper Union might give us some space; he knew the guy. They had no more idea of giving us space than the man in the moon.
“When a member died, Larry would go to the funeral.”
It was such a frustrating experience, the whole thing. Then, when I left, it was a matter of getting somebody else. There was a photographer around who had a studio on the East Side. He was apparently a friend of the Kennedys; he was a very influential guy. So he took it on, and Larry Fried was going to be the vice president. Well, this guy turned out to be a dud, so Larry Fried became president. Larry worked hard. Larry, at that point, had had a heart attack and had to stop photographing. But, Larry, very wisely at that point, set up a picture agency…
ASMP: With Stanley Kanen, the Image Bank.
Stoller: And I got very suspicious of how his position as president was beginning to be used to corral photographers. And what finally put the kiss on the whole thing was I discovered that, when a member died, Larry would promptly go to the funeral. I thought, well, that’s a good thing to do. A president had never done it before. But it was away of acquiring files for the agency … you know, talk to the widow.
ASMP: I had the same story from Arie Kopelman, who was working in the office with Larry.
“This is like the Polish Republic — every man a baron.”
Stoller: I think Arie was somebody that Larry had brought in. I didn’t know these people beyond that, and there’s a good reason for my not remembering the name of that editor of Infinity. He was dreadful. They owed the printer so much money that I went up — I think it was to Danbury, where the printer was — and had a meeting with them about this whole thing. We got along very well, and he told me, “We’re going to have to sue you people, because we can’t afford to carry this.” And [the editor] had no hesitation to promise him more and promise him more, and he was getting deeper and deeper into it. And I went up and talked to the guy and made an arrangement with them. I was wickedly attacked for going over the editor’s head, and here I was the president of the Society and it was the Society’s neck that was on the block.
This printer was just an executive who was the head of a printing company; he was involved with other companies as well. But the printing company, of course, was having trouble. And then the fact that the Board of Governors came in a great dither.
Another thing, I was very naive. I’d never had that experience with groups of people before.
ASMP: Who would?
Stoller: No, there are people who have been trained in the law that are just naturally suspicious.
ASMP: Arie said he thought photographers were a very special group. He represented the illustrators and worked with other groups. He said that each photographer’s a king. I went to an ASMP meeting with I.F. Stone, a great political guru. He listened and listened and he said, “Hey, this is like the Polish Republic — every man a baron.”
Stoller: Well, he elevated them. I used to think of them just as a bunch of taxi drivers, everybody in the business.
“I, on the other hand, could almost only work on assignment.”
ASMP: I’d like to know about the Welfare fund. What I remember, when I was Gene Smith’s trustee for that money that Mili and Shirley Burden put up, was that I couldn’t handle it after some months of paying Gene’s bills. And I threw myself on Jerry’s mercy and collected some money for the Welfare Fund. My impression is that he got some help from you for Gene Smith’s Welfare Fund.
Stoller: Gene Smith was rather a special case. I was working for the Upjohn Company; they had a little magazine they got out, and Will Burtin, who was my great friend, a marvelous man, said they wanted to get a documentary set of pictures of Kalamazoo. I said that I’d be happy to do it, but I didn’t think I could do as good as job as Gene Smith. So I called John Morris and there was a lot of shuffling of feet, and John Morris said, “No, I don’t think I can get him to do it.” The implication was that he was incapacitated.
ASMP: He was awfully sick.
Stoller: There were all sorts of problems and that’s all I remember. Then I did a job for Connecticut General, the big life insurance company that had just been built and everybody spent a lot of money on public relations. I did the building and the physical facilities, and they felt they had to have a more human kind of thing, so they got Gene Smith up to the area, and he had a terrible, unhappy time.
You know, those people are not good on assignments; they’re good on ideas that they generate, that they believe in. I worked at Fortune when Walker Evans was there and he’d literally get sick if they tried to give him an assignment. He did a certain number of things. Erica worked for Fortune one summer when she was going to Bennington, and she remembers Walker in an office smaller than this. He had a folding beach chair; he’d go in the office, lock the door and sleep. And, occasionally, a thing would come along, they’d discuss it — and, of course, he had great friends amongst the writers — and he would do a thing on railroad box cars or whatever. Nice, but not something you could do on an assignment.
I, on the other hand, could almost only work on assignment. I had to have something to sink my teeth in, some limitations.
ASMP: Did you generate many of your own assignments? How did you usually get them?
Stoller: Well, through the architects for the most part. And if it wasn’t through the architects, it might be an important architectural monument that I felt I wanted to photograph. I never had time to do things on my own. As I said earlier, photography as a medium is just a medium.
“I had to have special bellows made.”
ASMP: But you were using a big camera.
Stoller: Certainly. Through almost half my career, I used the 8x10 camera, and then I got down to a 4x5, which simplified the technique somewhat.
ASMP: But not a 35mm?
Stoller: No, I’ve never used 35mm. I’ll do some things with a Hasselblad, but those are all box cameras as far as I’m concerned. You need a lot more flexibility for an architectural camera. And, in the early days too, 8x10 was the standard equipment, and because not many people have 8x10 enlargers, I always had my own lab. In ‘38 and ‘39, if you wanted 8x10 enlargements you had to go to people like photostat houses and you got quality that was about photostat quality, so we had our own.
ASMP: So you don’t use the 8x10 cameras at all anymore?
Stoller: I have three, but I don’t use them any more. I just gave one away, and one I keep for sentimental reasons, because when I was in the Army, Paul Strand had it and he used it because he didn’t have a camera at that point. He’d been doing cinematography and he had the camera and the lenses.
ASMP: Were you in an Army photo unit?
Stoller: I was in the Signal Corp’s Photo Center and I taught. Before that I was in a photo company; the Army figures out ways to waste your time.
ASMP: So what you’re using now are 4x5s?
Stoller: I use mostly 4x5s, and I’ve even put together a smaller camera than that. The criterion is how much flexibility you have.
ASMP: And what kind of a small camera did you put together?
Stoller: It’s 2¼ by 3¼, built on a frame of a standard camera.
ASMP: And you can use it in the same ways that you do the other ones?
Stoller: That camera was put together for work that I do abroad without an assistant. I can get it, the tripod, the holders and my clothes all in one case.
ASMP: That’s the way to travel. Carry it on.
Stoller: Well, not carry it on; it’s a little big for that. That’s worked out very well and, not only that, but it uses roll film, which is very easy; you don’t have to carry great quantities of cut film.
ASMP: Is that a unique camera? Is there only one of those in the world?
Stoller: Since that time, they probably have become commercially available, but I haven’t kept up with the field. The parts are standard. I had to have special bellows made, but I think they’re now available.
“I personally think that wet photography is going to disappear.”
ASMP: Don Shepherd, ASMP’s insurance man for a long time, told us about how very proud he was to be working with a group of former Army buddies, and he thought the insurance programs were very important in getting the ASMP started. Was it important to you?
Stoller: I’ve never been involved in the insurance program. The personal insurance was always handled here, and now it’s handled in another office. I’m not eligible; I’m too old for the ASMP program. And the property thing was also done through the business.
I think for a young, starting photographer, it probably is important to him.
ASMP: The reason for the ASMP getting started was quite clear at the time: the magazine situation. Now, they’re in a very different market and a different world and they are concerned with electronic publishing and copyright laws. Is there something that you think they should be doing?
Stoller: Well, I think that the same general attitude prevails, no matter what the technique — electronic, tectonic, biological. Whatever kind of photographs they’re going to make, it’s always that eye and that brain that create the image. And what happens from there on in, however the printer uses it, however the designer distorts it, it’s a photograph that originated with a photographer. They can do the same thing — they’ve always been able to do the same kind of work — with an air brush and one thing and another, but the basic rights of the guy who sees and creates the image are always going to be the same.
I personally think that wet photography is going to disappear; it’s completely impractical in this modern world, polluting. It will all be electronic, ultimately, and photographers will have to understand that.
ASMP: And the ASMP then protects the photographers’ rights…
Stoller: To the image — no matter what the medium is. You have to think of the basic thing: his taste, his eye, his interpretation of a subject, how he sees it, how he interprets it and how he records it. What difference does it make on what sort of material he records it?
“I don’t hear the ASCAP members complaining.”
ASMP: Has the copyright law made a difference in your business?
Stoller: We always maintained that the image was ours, and anybody could use it for legitimate reasons, provided they compensated us for its use.
ASMP: That was certainly a big fight. I remember going down to Washington. I met Katzenbach, I made a speech, and it took a very long time.
Stoller: Well, I went down there. I forget who the executive secretary was then … Regina Benedict. We paid a lobbyist and we met with Senator Burdick, had lunch with him and went all through that stuff. And I, of course, realized later that all the things I should have said I didn’t.
ASMP: It was that kind of chipping away at it that got the law changed.
Stoller: I had thought at one point that the ASMP could have held a position very much like ASCAP. lt’s very difficult for a photographer to monitor all of the uses of photography and to sort his from other people’s. But, by training one or two people to look at all of this material that is done, that could have been done for him. It was one of the services that the ASMP could afford — at a fee, at a percentage, which would pay the expenses. I suppose that’s the way ASCAP works. It would pay the expenses of ASMP, and more. But I couldn’t even get my little thing off the ground, much less attempt to organize something like this.
ASMP: People are afraid of being controlled, I think.
Stoller: Well, I don’t hear the ASCAP members complaining.
But, you see, everybody has his own agenda. As I said earlier, a new administration comes in and they have their own things they want to do and the other stuff just gets wiped out and they come up with this whole new kind of thing.
Stoller: One guy thinks the name should be changed, so…
ASMP: What do you think the name should be changed to ?
Stoller: I don’t think so! But at one point they changed it to the American Society of Photographers in Communications. In Communications, yes, a real handy kind of a thing, as if the name really means anything. But [the executive secretary] was interested in film and felt that he could get a man like Haskell Wexler into the Society. That wasn’t the function of the Society; it wasn’t to get those fancy people in it. And I suppose that it will keep going that way. Maybe with a strong executive secretary, it will be kept on track and the projects will carry through from one administration to another.
“It’s no good to be occupied over 90 percent.”
ASMP: Let’s go back to your experience as a photographer. Did you ever have any fallow periods?
Stoller: No, I worked all the time. You see, I had these magazine accounts, which were voracious; they always kept me busy. I had one or two commercial accounts; as long as Skidmore Owings and Merrill was in business, I was in business. As long as House Beautiful was edited by Elizabeth Gordon, I was in business; as long as Will Burtin was art director at Fortune, I was in business. And there were two Catholic magazines, Liturgical Hearts, and this was over and over again.
All I can say is that, whenever I went out for work, went out to try to promote a job, I never succeeded. I’m probably the world’s worst salesman. The truth of it is that I was too busy.
I’ll tell you a little story. I was in an elevator at Rockefeller Center one time, and two gentlemen and a man who obviously worked at Rockefeller Center came in the elevator. I think what he was doing was showing them space, and they asked him about the rate of occupancy at Rockefeller Center. He said it was up around 98 percent. And they didn’t like that. They felt it was no good to be that heavily occupied; you shouldn’t be over 90 percent, because when you’re higher than that, the young and progressive firms have nowhere to go, and they move out.
ASMP: No flexibility.
Stoller: And so it is that when you have too much work, a lot of good and interesting work (more interesting, probably, than what you’re doing) has to go by the boards.
ASMP: That’s a very good metaphor.
Stoller: And I know that a lot of things that I would have loved to do went to other people because I just was not available.
“The secret is to deliver more than they ever expected to see.”
I did a tremendous amount of IBM work, every year. You see, IBM had budgets like anybody else — until you got up on the corporate level. When it came to the annual report, there was no limit to what you could spend. So the people in charge of photography and the photo library would get me up, that one time of the year, and we’d go across the map like a windshield wiper, photographing everything of interest for their library. But it all went on the budget of the annual report, so nobody cared. Every year we would do that.
ASMP: That’s an interesting story.
Stoller: Annual reports had not become important yet, so I was one of the few people involved in it. Now it’s a field that’s bigger than magazine advertising.
ASMP: That’s quite a feather in your cap.
Stoller: Well, it just was an accident. How I got to work for IBM in the first place and how I got to work for the Upjohn Company in the first place — my two biggest accounts. But then, as somebody said, “Yes, it’s accidental, but the same good accidents happen to the same people all the time.” The secret is to deliver more than they ever expected to see, and more than they even think they’re paying for. That’s true of an architect and it’s true of a photographer; it’s true of almost anybody.
ASMP: That’s a very clear-headed way to look at it.
Stoller: Time, Inc. (not Time Magazine) at one point offered to pay me more than the price that had been negotiated, because they thought the job was so good.
“I pre-edit my work before I shoot it.”
ASMP: Did you ever have any problems delivering the work that you’d done?
Stoller: Sure, I always had a problem. If there wasn’t a deadline, I’d never deliver it, because it’s not good enough. Never is it good enough.
ASMP: So, did you deliver on your deadlines?
Stoller: Sure, but not happily. If I look back at it, I wonder if I could do that again. And sometimes I’m so unhappy that, if there’s an occasion to do the job over again, I go and do it over again. It’s never as good the second time.
ASMP: Because you really did a fine job.
Stoller: Yes, then you see it and it’s the little things that irritate you. You only see the faults, you don’t see the good things, so the little faults that irritate you dominate the thing. There’s this book… I don’t see a copy of it here. I was so irate and so upset when I first saw it that I fired a letter off to the publisher — “It’s the kind of book that neither of us could be proud of” — that’s how bad I thought it was.
ASMP: In retrospect, is it as bad as you thought it was when you first saw it?
Stoller: Yes, knowing what it should have been, I still don’t think it’s up to snuff.
ASMP: Do you usually pre-edit your work or do you usually deliver what you’ve shot?
Stoller: I deliver what I’ve shot. I pre-edit my work before I shoot it. I don’t shoot any surplus stuff, which made it very difficult at times. When I started trying to do film strips, I discovered you need an awful lot more pictures; many, many more. On an assignment that you might cover in 12 or 16 pictures, you probably could use 100 pictures of details and odds and ends for a film strip. It’s another technique, you see. But I generally don’t over-shoot.
“I photograph it from the point of view of what they were trying to say.”
ASMP: Were you using the film strips to teach, Ezra?
Stoller: No, as an alternative to having stuff published in magazines and things of that sort. I wanted to design it, lay it out and do it my own way in inexpensive color, which would then be distributed to architecture schools. But I never did get that far, I never got to publish any, because I discovered the shortcomings of my shoot: There weren’t enough pictures.
ASMP: That’s a very neat way of shooting, too. It’s not the kind of thing people do with 35mm cameras.
Stoller: With 8x10, what you do is, you go on a job and you may wander around and look at the job for two days — certainly for a day; you never shoot the first day. I know what the sun does at different times of the year. I studied descriptive geometry, shades and shadows and rendering at architectural school, and I know what the sun will do, what the shadows will be like. So I go around with a plan of the job that I’ve made, and I’ll put arrows and times on those. Then, when I get back, I’ll make a schedule with times and what shot gets done at that time. Then I just go and shoot — always keeping an antenna up for the unusual shot; it’s not as cut and dried as all that. Very often, the very best pictures are the ones that you suddenly see out of the corner of your eye.
I was trained as an architect at a time when functional architecture was the credo, so everything I do is supposed to have a functional basis: do a job of work. I’m not interested in art photography; I’m interested in architecture as it is, to look at and enjoy. But what I do is a job of work, that is what it is. And I think that’s what architects always saw and understood. Very often, I can understand what they’re trying to do, and so I photograph it from the point of view of what they were trying to say, rather than what it might actually be. In other words, they have a lot of problems; a lot of things go wrong. So, by getting a bush in front of that mistake … and they realize that and appreciate it.
ASMP: You make it sound easy.
“He would never lay out a story until the pictures were in.”
Stoller: Once, an editor called Frank Lloyd Wright and said to him, “We’re having Stoller do this job. Are there any instructions that you have?” A telegram came back that said, “Ezra will know.” That’s what my relationship with him was.
ASMP: And that’s what you wanted.
Stoller: I used to fight with him all the time, but…
ASMP: …but he respected you.
Stoller: I don’t know if he respected anybody, but I got along with him. He tried to get me to come out and be the court photographer. Fortunately, I wouldn’t. You must never become so involved with the client. Take Elizabeth Gordon. The only value I was to a House Beautiful editor, the only reason I was of value to her, was that I knew her. I think I understood her, but I never worked to please her. Assuming that I understood what she wanted, I had to please myself. Consequently, she frequently got stuff that she didn’t expect, that might have been better than she could have expressed.
ASMP: Did you ever work with editors that you liked? Who did you like the best as an editor and who did you dislike the most?
Stoller: Well, Will Burtin was my best friend. The reason I had such respect for Burtin is he had that same attitude. He would never lay out a story until the pictures were in. He would never suggest pictures for his story before he sent me out on assignment. He’d send me out, and when I came back and the pictures were in, then he’d lay out his story.
And when he laid out a story, you could read that story from his pictures and you didn’t need a word of type. He arranged those things so that you could. He needed type for texture on the page. He used to send down to the writers and ask, could he have more text for this page? And they knew he meant texture, and they hated him for that. He never got along with the writers. He was strictly a visual man.
That’s a whole other aspect of the work: the visual versus the literary. Some of it’s an area that I talk quite a lot about and manage to antagonize a lot of writers.
“Architects have a misconception that they are affecting the culture.”
ASMP: You’ve been lecturing, have you been teaching as well as?
Stoller: I’ve talked at almost all the architectural schools at one time or another. Well, certainly about two dozen of them.
Stoller: I’ve never talked to Yale, and I wouldn’t, because [Professor Vincent] Scully is one of the villains in my …. He’s just articulate, verbose, with complete lack of understanding of what modern architecture is all about. Just a romantic. And there’s another guy, Krier, you may have seen the article by him. He writes about this wonderful town that he’s doing and how modern architecture ….
ASMP: That one in Florida.
Stoller: No, that’s another group that’s down there in Florida. Krier is the one that’s doing the job for the Prince of England.
ASMP: The Paternoster Square.
Stoller: And he says this is being done wrong. Architects have that fatal arrogant misconception of fact that they, with what they build, are affecting the culture and the civilization.
ASMP: You mean they’re not?
Stoller: They’re not. What they don’t realize is that, in the civilization and the culture, the architecture is an expression of the civilization and culture. And if you don’t like New York skyscrapers, it’s not the fault of the architect, it’s the fault of the culture. And Krier is able to do these great towns in England because he’s got a prince. Napoleon was able to do what he did with Paris. If you’ve got a king or a prince or a dictator, you can do what you like, but in our kind of a democracy, you take the bad with the good, and that’s the way it is.
“Do you think people are going to come to my museum to look at pictures?”
Stoller: Popular taste. Frank Lloyd Wright used to talk about the American “mobocracy”, and I heard him claiming, “I’m not interested in the common man at all. I’m interested in the uncommon man.” And H.L. Menckin talked about the great American “boobocracy”. Think about it: What is popular taste like?
ASMP: Well, you get the Guggenheim, with those stairs. Mili always claimed bitterly that that building was a tour de force.
Stoller: I know more about that Guggenheim than anybody, because I was working there all the time, and at that time before, and the predecessor to Guggenheim. He asked me, as we were standing and looking at that Johnson Wax Tower, he said, “Ezra, instead of making it rise, can you make it do it like that?” And, like a fool, I did it. It was too hard with the cameras I was using; now I could do it. It was too hard and I was too damn busy to have this old man bothering me all the time; instead of listening to him, which I should have done. Long nights at Taliesen West I used to spend talking to him, and disturbing me, because I wanted to make pictures. But he had a bug for this shape.
ASMP: Is that why that is?
Stoller: Of course. Most architects have a form in their mind and they look for an excuse to use it. Photographers will work that way, too; they have a vision that they’re stuck with and they try and make the problem fit it.
ASMP: Mili used to sneer every time he went by that building; he thought it was not functional.
Stoller: I was in a peculiar position on that building because I was a friend of Wright’s, I was working for Wright; but I was also a friend of Jim Sweeney, who was the curator. And Sweeney and Wright would have these terrible battles. Jim Sweeney wanted a museum that would really function; Wright wanted it to be a monument. And I heard Wright say to somebody who has had something to say about the Guggenheim — He’d just come from Paris and he’d seen a temporary exhibit. So this guy said he had been to this museum, this temporary exhibit that Le Corbusier had done in Paris. It was a series of tents and what you did was you just walked up ramps to level places and looked at pictures and he said that he noticed that the people visiting that museum never stopped on a ramp; they always stopped on a level place. And Wright came back and said, “Young man, do you think people are going to come to my museum to look at pictures?” So that really said it all.
“I always have to be building something.”
ASMP: Are you ever going to retire?
Stoller: Sure. I’m retired now.
ASMP: What does that mean, retired?
Stoller: Well, it means I don’t work as much as I did before. And I don’t know how I got all this work done before.
ASMP: Do you have a favorite project that now you can work on yourself?
Stoller: At the moment, I’m building something. I always have to be building something.
ASMP: What are you building?
Stoller: We’re building a little kind of a storehouse for my wife’s paintings and things; she paints.
ASMP: So, when you say building something, you mean building a building?
Stoller: Well, it’s an attachment on a building, which is an attachment on something else. I think there are 12 phases of this; where we live now started out as a photo workshop, and we lived next door.
ASMP: So you moved into the photo workshop?
Stoller: Yes, because when the kids left home, we had a house that we were rattling around in, so now we’re in the studio.
Ezra Stoller’s photos have appeared in many books on architecture. In addition, he authored Modern Architecture: Photographs by Ezra Stoller. (Text by William Saunders; published by Harry N Abrams in 1990 and reissued 1999; costs about $35 used, $75 new.) Despite the title, this is a book of photography rather than a treatise on architecture. It contains more than 400 images of the great modern buildings.
Stoller also wrote The Building Block Series. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, the series contains several monographs presenting a single building in detail. Each volume includes a brief preface by Stoller setting out his relationship to the building, a short historical and analytical essay, and roughly a dozen endnotes. In between are 50 to 60 duotone photos and a few plan drawings.
The edifices covered include the Chapel of Ronchamp, the United Nations, the Seagram building, the TWA terminal, the Salk building, Wright’s Fallingwater and Taliesin West, the Whitney Museum, the Beinecke Library of Yale University and the two Guggenheim museums (New York and Bilboa).