After preparation for a recent class at Precision Camera on Architectural Photography, I wanted to share some highlights of four master architectural photographers working in the mid-twentieth century. By studying the work and motivations of these photographers, we can learn what has been successful in the past and give us a foundation for moving our work forward.
First up is Lucien Hervé , a French photographer known for his working relationship with the architect Le Courbusier. The project that I think bears most looking at is the Indian city of Chandigrah. Le Courbusier designed the layout of the planned city of Chandigarh and importantly the 4 main buildings at the city center. Chandigarh has become a touch stone for architectural photographers because the plan was so ambitious. It is intriguing how those ambitions played out over the course of the last 60 years.
Herve’s contributions to this project is a set of abstract black and white photos that suggest a form and perhaps a function. They stand as cubist works of art as much as anything else. His work is dense with layers, hard blacks, bright whites and shapes and depth that beguile the viewer.
Julius Schulman is our second master to look at. His probably best know for his photo at Case Study House #22. His portfolio of work is based on a staggering 50+ years of output working into 80’s and 90’s.
If you study his work and his influence you will notice that he exported a Southern California vibe to the rest of the world. He often made exterior photograph at sunset with a the haze of fog coming in from the mountains. Schulman balanced that against the lights glowing from inside the house. He created an inviting feeling of coming in off the beach for a dinner with friends and family.
Schulman amplified normal home interiors with staged pieces and models. And he pressed anyone from professional model or production assistants into service as models, usually dressed in modern fashion with a drink in hand.
For photographers studying Schulman, the takeaways are the interior and exterior balance he created near sunsets and the feel of images which definitely felt California Cool as a brand. Also, branches. Schulman foregrounded most of his imagery with a lone tree branch to great effect. Once you see the branches, it can be difficult to un-see them.
Third on our list is Balthazar Korab. In contrast to Schulman’s approachable California Cool, Korab is known for images of the mid-western US that are austere. He used black and white or a color palette muted with more blues and grays. His photographs have a clinical distance. Often a single lone person is in the frame to give a sense of scale and movement.
Look at Korab for his symmetry and the imposing way his buildings feel: stark, powerful and cold. Contrast that with the Schulman warm and inviting tones.
Rounding out our top four is Ezra Stoller. To me he is the most modern of architectural photographers working in the mid twentieth century. His style is lighter than Korab, with more light and more people. The images have more energy. He blends the foregrounding of Schulman with the occasional abstraction of Herve. His framing and single point photographs are precise and knife like in their attention to detail. His name became a verb “Stollerized” for the effects his photos had on a buildings reputation. That is a lofty goal to set out to achieve.
Review the work of the mid century master architectural photographers. It is a great way for those new to architectural photography as well as experienced photographers to expand their abilities. It is certainly worth your time and energy. I know that I have learned in researching the shoulders on which we currently stand.