An L.A. Focus: Photographer Tim Street-Porter Has Made the City His Muse
By Mallery Roberts-Morgan
Oct 01, 2017 | 5:00 AM
Since arriving from his native Britain in the late 1970s, the internationally celebrated photographer Tim Street-Porter has had an unwavering devotion to the architecture and design of Los Angeles. In addition to being a valuable historic record, Street-Porter’s body of work, now spanning nearly forty years, reads like a visual love letter to the glamour, originality and modernity of his adopted city. He has authored six books as both writer and photographer. Three of those books—The Los Angeles House, Los Angeles Deluxe, L.A. Modern—are considered definitive reference guides to the history of design and architecture in Los Angeles. In addition, he has collaborated on eight books with his wife, design writer and decorator Annie Kelly, among them their highly popular Rooms to Inspire series. Time and again, Street-Porter’s images have graced the pages of every international publication of note, and he continues to work for a wide array of publications.
When he first came to Los Angeles, in 1978, Street-Porter recalls being smitten with a world that appeared to be the opposite of everything he had grown up with in England. “The east coast did not interest me because it resembled Europe,” he says. “Out here it was totally exotic. In those days, L.A. felt like the last outpost of civilization west of New York. It didn’t feel connected to anywhere else. Everything had an almost cubistic quality, especially the apartment buildings, like the ones David Hockney loved to paint, with a vertical palm tree rearing up behind, piercing a blue sky.”
Julius Shulman had been the reigning architectural photographer of Los Angeles since the 1950s. By the 1980s, however, his career was starting to wind down. “Julius’s style was considered old school by then, and I was the first photographer to take an interest in the new architecture coming out of Los Angeles,” Street-Porter says, referring to cutting-edge architects such as Frank Gehry, Morphosis, Eric Owen Moss and Fred Fisher.
When back in England for family visits, Street-Porter would connect with European publications looking to sell his stories. Acclaimed architectural magazines such as Domus scooped them up, and as a result it was Street-Porter who introduced the exciting new architecture of L.A. to a global audience. Back in the U.S., however, not everyone was as easy to convince. When he showed a Gehry project to Architectural Record in New York, he remembers a senior editor saying, “Oh, dear Frank, we do hope to be able to publish his work one day.” Within a year that attitude had changed dramatically, and Street-Porter’s images of Gehry’s own house in Santa Monica became one of the most widely published architecture stories in the world. “So in that way I was in the right place at the right time,” he recalls.
Published in 1995, The Los Angeles House, written and photographed by Street-Porter, provided an overview of twentieth-century L.A. architecture and interiors: “from the Greene and Greene brothers, who were the first to design a house specifically for the climate, all the way through to Gehry,” explains Street-Porter. A chapter devoted to the Hollywood Regency style featured little-known or forgotten talents such as Paul R. Williams, John Wolf, William Haines and Tony Duquette. Also included were young designers such as Barbara Barry, Tom Callaway and Bryan Murphy.
“Something I heard on the radio one day stayed with me,” says Street-Porter. “Someone at city hall said, ‘Architecturally, there’s practically nothing worth saving in Los Angeles.’ It became my personal challenge to record what I regarded as the most historic architecture in the city.” Los Angeles Deluxe, with a forward by Diane Keaton, was published in 2005. An innovative large-format book with foldout pages, it was a special edition of only 5,000 copies. Due to its success, a smaller format was published in 2008 and titled Los Angeles Mini. “I was asked to photograph everything I loved about L.A.,” Street-Porter recalls. “It was a great opportunity to show a lot of the historic architecture that I wanted recognized, to keep it from being destroyed. With that book I was really romancing Los Angeles.”
Los Angeles Deluxe included such iconic landmarks as Crossroads of the World, the Santa Anita race track, the Eastern Building, Bullocks Wilshire department store, the ornate interiors of the Pantages Theatre, Hockney’s famous pool at the Roosevelt Hotel and houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames and John Lautner.
“Los Angeles Mini was very portable and people could pop it in their suitcase and take it back home,” says Annie Kelly. “A lot of photographers were into gritty realism at the time. Tim’s work made everything look rather glamorous. It was a very positive view of L.A. going out into the world in those suitcases.”
“Tim Street-Porter basks in L.A. Modern,” said Vanity Fair in 2008, upon the publication of his book capturing the best of modernist architecture in the city. “I think Los Angeles has arguably the most extraordinary collection of modernist houses in the world,” says Street-Porter. “I don’t know where else could compare for quality.” L.A. Modern is still considered the ultimate reference guide to the city’s midcentury residential design. “If you have a close look through it, you’ll find it’s sprinkled with homeowners who are very well known,” says Kelly. “When celebrities and tastemakers started to buy these houses, a renaissance in Los Angeles design began. From architecture it spread to furniture, and in the end it ignited an enduring style movement.”
Today, Street-Porter is preparing a book on modern architecture in Palm Springs, to be published in early 2018. “Palm Springs is the only rival to Los Angeles in terms of the quantity of great midcentury architecture,” he says.
“It’s inspiring to be surrounded by Tim’s work,” says Kelly, referring to their Hollywood live-work loft, located in the historic 1929 Equitable Life Building on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. The 1,200-square-foot one-bedroom, one-bath corner apartment serves as the couple’s office, archive and pied-à-terre. Kelly took on the decorating herself and says she wanted to keep the focus on Street-Porter’s work and the loft’s remarkable views. “The artwork is mostly Tim’s prints of iconic L.A. architecture,” she says. The walls and the furnishings are almost entirely white, and an extensive bookcase houses a notable reference library as well as copies of the nearly 20 books authored between the two of them.
“All our books are displayed, as well as Tim’s various awards,” notes Kelly. “It feels good to have your work out instead of at the bottom of some drawer, and it gives you strength to keep going and do more.” A large chrome-and-glass dining table from the 1970s “where we can really spread out” was purchased at auction. A sculptural white leather armchair is from close friend and celebrity decorator Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Decorative cushions in Bullard’s fabrics were a house-warming gift.
“When we moved in six years ago, this corner of Hollywood and Vine was rather desolate,” recalls Street-Porter. “But once the metro and Starbucks arrived a few years later, it became a hub of activity.” New buildings are going up all around the neighborhood, half under construction now, others slated in the next few years. Having a corner loft guarantees the expansive views west, up Hollywood Boulevard, and south, down Vine, will never be obstructed.
“This stretch of Hollywood Boulevard is incredibly iconic, with all the stars on the pavement,” says Street-Porter. “If you think about what has happened right here, the Pantages Theatre next door, the premieres, the old Hollywood stars—and now all the tourists—just stepping onto the street gives you quite a buzz, a blend of energy from both past and present.” As the sun begins to set, Street-Porter gazes out the window at the view up Hollywood Boulevard. “Looking at this now, you might think you are right back in the 1930s,” he muses. “I just have to look out the window and it’s all kind of inspiring, really.”