Review: In Wayne Thom’s revelatory show, a generation of L.A. buildings gets needed attention
You’re familiar with pretty much every phase of Julius Shulman’s long career as an architectural photographer. You started following the globe-trotting Iwan Baan on Instagram way before he became a design-world celebrity. You can’t recommend Ezra Stoller’s black-and-white pictures of midcentury Manhattan highly enough.
But Wayne Thom? The name may draw a blank. In Los Angeles, where the Shanghai-born architectural photographer has lived and worked for half a century, Thom long operated in the shadow of Shulman, Marvin Rand and other local heavyweights.
Shulman and Rand died in 2009. Thom stopped working three years ago, wrapping up his career by shooting a house in Colorado designed by architect Harry Teague, a longtime friend.
But he is full of enthusiasm at 82. He had a noticeable bounce in his step as he took me through a new exhibition of his work, organized by Woodbury University’s Julius Shulman Institute, at the small WUHO Gallery in Hollywood.
He had good reason to be in high spirits. Though the exhibition was originally planned in part as an advertisement for his archive — Shulman’s had gone with some fanfare to the Getty in 2005 — the strategy turned out to be moot. Over the summer the USC Libraries announced it had acquired Thom’s archive, which includes images of more than 2,800 buildings.
Curated by Nicholas Olsberg and Andrea Dietz, “Matter, Light and Form: Architectural Photographs of Wayne Thom” is a lean and sneakily ambitious show. It has a good deal more to say about photography and design history — particularly the story of Late Modernism in Southern California architecture — than it lets on.
It includes 36 photographs of 17 buildings, in Los Angeles but also in Vancouver, Canada; San Diego and on Navajo land in Arizona, by architects including Giò Ponti, Frank Gehry, Arthur Erickson, A. Quincy Jones, William Pereira and the photographer’s brother, Vancouver architect Bing Thom. Fourteen of the pictures are in black and white and 22 in color. They are divided into three categories by building type: plazas, towers and pavilions.
I wish nearly all of the prints were bigger — not Gursky big but roomier. I wish one of my favorite Thom photographs, of the cubic Sears, Roebuck offices in Alhambra as seen from the far side of a wide parking lot, were included here. And the way the pictures have been mounted, under simple sheets of glass that represent a compromise between Thom’s desire to show them unframed and Olsberg’s interest in giving them some depth on the wall, is not ideal.
Though the projects on view cover the years 1968 (the Congregational Church in Northridge by Jones and Frederick Emmons) to 2003 (Walt Disney Concert Hall), the bulk of the pictures show buildings from the 1970s and 1980s by the more adventurous of L.A.'s big corporate firms. Many of these are mirrored-glass towers, gorgeous but tight-lipped, like Langdon and Wilson’s 1971 CNA building (now the Superior Court) on 6th Street just west of downtown.
The CNA photograph is probably the best known of Thom’s career. (“That picture put me on the map,” he said.) The building, standing against a pure blue sky, reflects clouds that are otherwise out of frame, as if they’re trapped in the facade. The effect is to make a painterly building look even more so. The photograph nods toward Shulman and Magritte at the same time.
Thom switched to a digital camera relatively late in his career, beginning with the Disney Hall shoot 12 years ago. He is far more interested in discussing the decades he spent shooting on film, using a pair of Swiss Sinar cameras (“the P series — Julius used the S”) with Schneider lenses. A conversation with him quickly turns into an entertaining seminar on the history of photography. He is openly nostalgic for the wonders of Kodachrome 2 (“My favorite film”). His stories suggest he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age.
There are no such histrionics in the photographs, nearly all of which are patiently, coolly composed. Especially in black and white, Thom shows a preference for crisp, slanting light and heavy shadow — many of his best pictures, he told me, were taken at 5 a.m. But his photographs tend to be one notch quieter, less overtly glamorous or forceful, than Shulman’s, which for all their brilliance were also the pictures of a dedicated salesman, a man happy to be always selling something.
Don’t get me wrong: Thom was unapologetically something of a company man too. He shot these pictures, with few exceptions, for the architects, not for magazines or on his own. It’s probably futile to try separating their promotional qualities from their artistic ones.
Thom describes the beginning of his career not by remembering a flash of inspiration but instead a trip to Jones’ office to solicit work — a cold call but in the flesh. Jones asked him to shoot the church in Northridge, and he was off and running. “Quincy was my mentor, my godfather,” he told me. “He made Wayne Thom!”
It’s fitting that “Matter, Light and Form” is anchored by a handful of buildings that (like Thom’s work) have been hiding in plain sight these last few years. Along with the CNA building, these include Ponti’s underrated Denver Art Museum building of 1971 and the 1982 Wells Fargo Center on Bunker Hill by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
And John Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel. Thom’s admiring portrait of the building, with its cluster of reflective cylindrical towers, appeared on the cover of the March 1978 issue of Progressive Architecture magazine. Portman’s design has been well known in academic circles since the political philosopher Fredric Jameson analyzed it at length in the 1980s, writing that the Bonaventure “does not wish to be a part of the city but rather its equivalent and replacement or substitute.”
For three decades the double critique that these buildings were symbolic of a new, super-charged stage in globalized capitalism and turned their backs on the public realm — which they were and which they do — has obscured their remarkable qualities as objects in the skyline.
Because Los Angeles has relatively few towers for a city of its size, and because of the quality of the light here, the ones we do build almost always have a closer and more symbiotic relationship with the sky, as Thom’s picture of CNA makes clear, than with neighboring buildings. And because clouds shift so much more quickly than skylines do, our towers — our reflective, Late Modern towers in particular — are capricious, hard to pin down.
Jameson and others wrote about those buildings in terms of their standoffish power. But their fidelity to modernism, despite the historical hour, also gives them a vulnerability.
As they were being built the once-dominant ideology they represented was under clever and persistent attack from a rising generation of designers interested in bringing ornament, color, humor and irony back to architecture. Like aging spies, gray-haired protagonists in some Le Carré novel, many of these mirrored-glass towers are discreet, well dressed and all too aware of their fading influence.
Now this corporate architecture of the 1970s and 1980s is getting a fresh look from historians, critics and young architects. It’s good news that the photographer who understood it better than any other is getting one too.
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