Looking at Galveston Past

by Ed Osowski

Ezra Stoller, Galveston historical Society, September 4-30, 1993

In 1963, architectural photographers Ezra Stoller and Henri Cartier-Bresson were commissioned to produce photographs to accompany Houston architect Howard Barnstone’s text The Galveston That Was Houston: Museum of Fine Arts, and New York: MacMillan Co., 1966). Working in Galveston for nine days, Stoller created a group of images documenting a wide range of nineteenth century domestic and commercial buildings at a specific and rather depressing, period in Galveston's history—before preservationists began efforts to save the city's architectural heritage.
During September 1993, thirty-two of Stoller’s photographs (seven vintage prints and the remainder modern prints) from the Galveston project, invlding several omitted from the book, were shown at Galveston’s Artists’ Loft & Gallery. The exhibition was funded by the Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF), the Galveston Renaissance Foundation, and the Stoller Family.
Stoller began his career in 1939 and was a key player in the campaign to establish European modernism as the architectural style for American buildings by the 1960s. Barnstone, a supporter also of Mies Van de Rohe’s modernist vocabulary, and Stoller may have at first seemed an odd pair for a project seeking to rescue Galveston's past before it disappeared. (Cartier-Bresson’s more humanistic and emotional style seemed more appropriate to capture the spirit of Galveston’s past.) But Stoller's and Barnstone’s modernism actually made them perfect partners. Their skeptical vision may have made them more receptive to the city's hidden treasures.
Looking through Barnstone’s book before viewing the exhibition, one realizes how differently Stoller and Cartier-Bresson interpreted their alignments. (Carrier-Bresson's images were not on display, so familiarity with them depended on familiarity with the book, scheduled for republication by Rice University Press in June). Stoller's images are precise, clearly lit, direct, ordered, cool—all qualities one associates with the aims of architectural photography. Cartier-Bresson’s works are much more of their moment and location, perhaps sentimental and warm when viewed against Stoller’s coolness. But Stoller was also able to anchor the building's residents in a particular place—two goals of architectural photography—providing the facts of the building and offering the viewer the experience of how the building is used. As the exhibition demonstrated, Stoller brought these aims with him when he documented Galveston.
Stoller's approach eschewed nostalgia—for him the city’s buildings could be likened to pieces of sculpture, abstract and pure, waiting for his camera to focus on them. The organizers of the exhibition, however, ignoring the photographic evidence before their eyes, write in gallery notes that Stoller’s mission was "to depict the buildings as they had been used in the nineteenth century." The photographs speak otherwise: his DarraghResidence, East Elevation deserves a close reading. Dating from 1886, the building was a grand structure that combined elements of the Greek Revival and Italianite styles and stood until 1991 when it was destroyed by a fire. In Stoller’s photograph, its grand days are past. One sees clothing hanging to dry on the second floor porch and seven mailboxes by the front door; the tower windows lack covers. Barstone’s summary of its fate at the time of Stoller's photograph is brief, “The building is now a rooming house with eight or ten apartments in poor repair."
Somewhat frustrating, from a historical viewpoint, was GHF’s failure to document fully many photographs exhibited. Several buildings—especially one of a wooden Gothic Revival church—were simply nor identified. And the description “demolished,” found in a number ofcaptions, failed to distinguish between buildings ruthlessly destroyed and others, such as the Darragh House, which fell to an arsonist despite GHF efforts to find a buyer for it.
Not since 1971. when Museum of Fine Arts, Houston showed the Cartier-Bresson and Stoller photographs from the book (they are part of the Museum's holdings) have these works been seen. In 1961, Stoller was the first photographer to receive the American Institute of Architects of Architect’s gold medal. His Galveston photographs offer the chance tostudy a master at work, applying this sharp definition and emotion-free stance, to a city and its romantic architecture that seem the direct antithesis of his modernism.