An Interior Mind

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the rich are different from you and me, that goes double for their kitchens.

They're lavish, to be sure, often costing more than reasonably well paid people make in a decade--before taxes, that is. But open the doors of some of Beverly Hills' vast refrigerators and see what Tim Street-Porter sees: a delicious irony.

"Rows of cans of diet Coke and maybe a few remains of pizza. This kind of architecture is Realtor-driven. They say you have to have the scale of the kitchen and certain kinds of ranges and refrigerators when you're selling the house."

The lanky Briton knows what goes on behind L.A.'s posh closed doors because he's commissioned to open them for the country's glossiest shelter magazines--House Beautiful, Architectural Digest and House & Garden. He's also hired by decorators and architects who want their work filtered through an artist's lens. Trained as an architect, Street-Porter photographs spaces and lush interiors with the eye of a designer.

"I look at how people live in a house and how they use it," says Street-Porter, 57.

Street-Porter's distinctive vision--glorifying Southern California living in crisp images illuminated by natural light--has placed him in the pantheon of the country's architectural photographers. He follows in the footsteps of L.A.'s dean of architectural photographers, Julius Shulman.

"Tim, probably among all the people out there, is the most significant after Julius in Southern California," says gallery owner Craig Krull. "He recognizes significant architecture and he's able to interpret it and teach the viewer about it."

Indeed, when Vogue assigned a story on Herb Ritts' log cabin hideaway in Santa Fe, N.M., last year, the celebrity photographer asked the magazine to hire Street-Porter for the shoot.

"He's a photographer's photographer," says Bret Parsons, spokesman of the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, which is honoring him Thursday with an award for Lifetime Achievement in Photography of Interiors, one of seven Stars of Design laurels meted out at the annual WestWeek conference of industry professionals.

"He's one of the best in the country and there's just a handful," says architect-designer Brian Murphy, whose work Street-Porter has documented extensively. "He's certainly our preferred photographer. He's got a good eye. I love seeing somebody else come into a project and see what they see. It's always a pleasure to cross trails with him."

In the sophisticated circles and lofty environments Street-Porter travels in, he's unfailingly polite and deferential. That's a particularly useful trait for a stranger who professionally penetrates people's inner sanctums, usually for days at a time.

"It's a slightly strange job going into people's houses because you are visiting people in their private territory, and they have obviously invited you to come, but it's always a little bit of an invasion, so you have to be very circumspect," Street-Porter says softly. "You become very expert at being diplomatic."

Street-Porter is long and gaunt like a Giacometti sculpture. He is sitting on a French 19th century couch of ivory silk in his shadowy living room, idly caressing Felix the gray cat who dangles off the edge, obligingly keeping his furry feet off the furniture.

The cavernous room, with 20-foot-high ceilings, reflects Street-Porter's personal aesthetic du jour--it is rife with 18th and 19th century French furnishings that mesh nicely with the Italianate ambience of his Whitley Heights manse, Villa Vallombrosa, the onetime home of such aesthetes as the costume designer Adrian and Leonard Bernstein.

Good taste is such an imperative of the place that Street-Porter and his Australian artist wife, Annie Kelly, like to regale visitors with tales of the 1929 home's first owner, regal widow and resident ghost, Eleanor de Witt. Her invisible hand allegedly pushed a prior tenant down the stairs when he was gauche enough to install white shag carpet.

"I was trained as a modernist, but here I am living with antiques and loving it," Street-Porter says. "Eight years ago, I was in a house which was all Mexican, while previously we'd had one all furnished with '50s furniture, so my own aesthetic has accommodated a variety of styles. My aesthetics have become extremely catholic, and I think that the one overriding thing is that whatever the style, it still has to have a certain quality and look and line."

One influence not to be ignored in his cosmopolitan flair is English eccentricity.

"He's such a character in this town," Murphy says. "You see him at a party, say it's Westweek, and he'll be in this perfectly tailored eggplant-colored pantsuit with a little matador jacket. It's perfect and nobody else would even dare do something like that, outrageous double knit, very '60s. He's out and about with Annie on his arm, the host of the toast, Mr. Style."

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The expatriate couple have taken to L.A. with such fervor since their arrival 20 years ago that a design writer once likened them to Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangier. Street-Porter and Kelly love to make the rounds of dinner parties and charity events, and the photographer is unabashed in his love for America's wide-open spaces, its driving machines as well as, in the microcosm, L.A.'s domestic architecture. His appetite was whetted as a child in Suffolk, England, when he thumbed through his aunt's subscription to the Saturday Evening Post.

"I had my own private inner childhood," courtesy of the magazines and their photographs of "cars and refrigerators and train journeys across the country. It seemed like some extraordinary ultimate kind of place because England was going through austerity. And so I'd always been attracted to America, but for me America was the West Coast. The East Coast still looked like Europe to me."

Street-Porter studied architecture in London, but opportunities were limited and he hated the idea of being cooped up in an office, so he decided to turn an avocation into a vocation. "Without studying it at all, I became a photographer, which was lucky."

In 1967, Street-Porter went to Paris to photograph some interiors and inflatable furniture and sold his work to Queen magazine, which gave him a five-page spread. He worked in London for 10 years, shooting fashion, beauty and design layouts, but England's gloomy economy prompted him to look west.

He visited Los Angeles in the early '70s and fell in love with the look of the place, "the graphic look of the buildings and the architecture and the landscape. I came really very much for the same reasons that David Hockney came.

"I found it really interesting and challenging and a wonderful change from the European mind-set. Europe is basically a very old civilization, whereas people here were doing wonderful architecture and interesting art. Like Ed Ruscha had this great, dry laconic presence in his work and that was something I'd never experienced. And I just loved the whole feeling of infinite space."

He and Kelly moved here in 1977, and Street-Porter still spends three-quarters of his time photographing in Southern California, even though his work takes him all over the globe, particularly Bali, to which he and Kelly make annual pilgrimages.

Back home, he considers L.A.'s residential architecture a treasure underrated by the city's inhabitants. Street-Porter enshrined images of it in two of his three books--"The Los Angeles House: Decoration and Design in America's 20th-Century City" (Clarkson Potter, 1995) and "Freestyle: The New Architecture and Interior Design From Los Angeles" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1986).

Unlike other architectural aficionados, Street-Porter embraces not just early modernists like Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler, but also the city's hodgepodge of revivalism.

"Los Angeles is a city where a Swiss chalet, a Colonial mansion, a Queen Anne cottage and a Gothic castle can all be found on the same street," he wrote in "The Los Angeles House." "There is a popular theory to explain this spectacular variety: these many houses each represent the 'big house' in the small town where the owner had grown up."

New York's residential architecture pales in comparison to L.A.'s for the simple reason that life there is generally lived in an apartment, and Angelenos not only build houses, they build whatever they want, Street-Porter says. But that's changing.

"There hasn't been as much really interesting house building since the recession. There hasn't been anything in the last seven or eight years in terms of volume of extraordinary houses to compare to what happened in the early '80s when it seemed everybody was building really extraordinary houses."

He's an active preservationist in his adopted Whitley Heights. And while Street-Porter may be soft-spoken, he's outspoken when it comes to L.A.'s poor record on architecture--in either preserving its domestic riches or managing to erect any iconic public buildings. He's banking on the construction of Frank Gehry's beleaguered Walt Disney Concert Hall downtown to fill that gap.

"L.A. really needs to have an important architectural icon," he says. "Sydney has its opera house and it would be hard to compute how much value it's been for the city's economy, how much it's helped to attract visitors from all over the world because it's such a potent image of the city."

If Disney Hall is not built, "we'll have to just go on feeling, unfortunately, that it's a very staid, conservative, conventional city."

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Street-Porter knows what he likes. He refuses to photograph anything really horrible. What does receive his imprimatur is bathed in only the most alluring natural light, a longtime hallmark of Street-Porter's work that has lately become a staple of architectural photography.

"I think in any great architectural and interior photo, it's how they edit space and use light," says Harper's Bazaar style director Wendy Goodman, who has worked with Street-Porter. "Those qualities make rooms come alive and make things that are dormant very organic, and Tim has a wonderful mastery of the way he edits and the way he works with light."

To capture the light just so, he spends several days on a shoot, arriving at dawn and leaving at dusk to watch the light change and catch all the moods of a house.

"So I'm able to experience architecture in a way that not many people have the opportunity to do," he says. "When it's interesting, it's wonderful to just experience the architecture. If it's a house by an important architect, I'm able to tell if the house is working or not, if it's doing what it's supposed to be doing."

With an assistant in tow, Street-Porter comes armed with a Sinar 4-by-5 camera, a Hasselblad medium-format camera and a Canon 35-millimeter camera.

"He works with very little equipment and he works fast as you do when you work with natural light," says architectural photographer Jeremy Samuelson, a former assistant of Street-Porter's. "Most photographers have tons of equipment, but he'd just have a suitcase in the trunk of his Jaguar because he works with natural light."

Not all assignments are so streamlined of complications. Street-Porter recently photographed a well-known producer's house in Beverly Hills--to his dismay. As soon as he got out of his car, he heard a strange voice behind him asking if he were a producer. It was the driver of a tour bus desperate for a famous face.

"Then I just knew it wasn't going to go very well," he says. He turned out to be right.

"I'm usually treated pretty well when I'm invited into a house to photograph it, but the wife refused to speak to me or my assistant. The whole time we were working there, she walked past with a frosty face. And then the decorator and this famous producer got into a huge argument about why we were there. I find that older film producers usually can be rather unfriendly, shall we say."

Street-Porter is set apart from most other photographers in his field not just for his architect's eye but also for his interest in writing about design. His missives were featured in the defunct L.A. Style and will soon resurface in the New York Times, for which he's traveling the country for a series on new American decorating. Those dispatches will be compiled in a book.

Monumental design may lure Street-Porter from Houston to Bali, but he will probably always be focused on Los Angeles. As Buzz magazine, which twice crowned Street-Porter one of L.A.'s 100 coolest people, put it, "After L.A. slips into the ocean and disappears forever, people will remember it primarily through the images of Street-Porter."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Tim Street-Porter

Claim to fame: Architectural photographer.

Background: Born in Suffolk, England. Now lives in Whitley Heights with his wife, Annie Kelly, an artist and designer.

Passions: Architecture, interior design, magazines and life without TV.

On the pleasures of photographing great homes: "It's so comfortable. You aren't out there braving the elements, the traffic and quite often difficult logistics--waiting for people, waiting for lights to change so that traffic isn't blurring through the picture in a way you don't want. Houses are congenial. There's music playing usually and it's great."

On the nightmare of photographing horrible homes: "I don't want to photograph anything which is really hideous. Obviously. Nobody would. I have my own aesthetic threshold which is purely personal. If a place is flamboyantly kitsch, I usually enjoy it. But there's a certain level of vulgarity sometimes which is harder to take over the years."

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