The dream job for a voyeur

“I’m the great flatterer,” says Tim Street-Porter of his work. He relies on natural light and still uses film to capture a house’s personality.
(Tim Street-Porter)
Times Staff Writer

FOR as long as he can remember, the photographer Tim Street-Porter has been a voyeur. Curiosity, not perversity, drives him to peer behind strangers’ doors. Fortunately for the many people who have seen the architectural wonders of Los Angeles through his lens, his lifelong benign nosiness combined with an education in architecture and the ability to write eloquently about his adopted home have produced a body of work that captures the majesty and whimsy of L.A.

Street-Porter describes this city as “a vast residential theme park,” where houses represent “a bewildering range of styles and fantasies, pretensions and idealistic visions.” He long ago stopped keeping count of how many homes he’s photographed here over the last 30 years, houses that appear in lavish coffee-table books and on the glossy pages of Architectural Digest, Elle Décor, Vanity Fair and House Beautiful. “Trying to come up with a number would be like asking Mick Jagger how many girls he’s slept with,” he says.

Yet the moment when his career was presaged can be precisely identified. When he was a boy growing up in England during the second World War, Street-Porter remembers seeing a photograph of an apartment house whose front wall had been blown away in a bombing attack. “You could see into all the apartments,” he recalls. “It was like looking into a doll’s house, really. You could see the wallpaper and the furniture, a vase of flowers set on a table or a painting hung on the wall. That started my fascination with the variety of ways people live.”

Now people pay him to come inside and look around. His reputation as a shelter magazine favorite is so solid that homeowners, interior designers and architects hire him in the hope that his pictures will better the chance of their house being featured by a magazine. He accepts three to four private commissions a month, which normally take two to three days to complete.

The rest of his time is divided among commercial jobs, such as photographing hotels for brochures and advertisements, editorial assignments (Newsweek recently sent him to San Francisco to photograph the new de Young Museum of Art) and work on books he writes and photographs as well as others he contributes images to. “Los Angeles,” his latest book, with an introduction by fellow preservationist Diane Keaton, will be issued next month in a limited edition of 5,000.

There’s rarely a scouting trip before Street-Porter arrives at a house. Because he prefers to photograph using natural light, he first takes a tour, noting which rooms will lose daylight quickest. Then he sets his Fuji 680 camera on a tripod and begins. Architects making suggestions and looking over his shoulder don’t disturb him. Some homeowners disappear for the day; others linger to watch him work. If a shoot is for a specific magazine, an editor usually takes charge and runs interference between Street-Porter and a house’s owners.

“Sometimes there are kids and animals all over the place, and you have to throw them all out,” he says. “Or you use them in the pictures.”

Being exiled by Street-Porter would most likely be painless. Were it not for his gentle manner, he might appear stern; he is tall and thin, with a long, Lincolnesque face. Although a persistent stutter could indicate otherwise, he is self-assured and unflappable. “I’m kind of house-trained, you know,” he says. “I have an English politeness, so I’m extremely easy to work with, actually.”

No matter how profound their inner beauty, certain homes, like some people, are more photogenic than others. Street-Porter says, “Architects do kind of work, quite often, with a photo spread in mind. I like that because it makes what I do easy. I want to get a photograph which makes the building or house look as strong and attractive as possible. I’m the great flatterer. That is what interior and architectural photographers all are, and not necessarily in a negative way.”

Interior designer Maxine Greenspan’s shingled Cape Cod house in Pacific Palisades was photographed by Street-Porter for a spread in Elle Décor. “He made my home look so beautiful,” she says. “I looked at the photographs and thought, ‘This is a place I’d like to live.’ And then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I do live there.’ ”

When he is engaged in photographing a home or a public building, Street-Porter is happy. His wife, Annie Kelly, an artist and interior designer, says, “Every so often you meet people who are completely what they do, and Tim is one of those. Every bone in his body is a photographer. Sometimes when we’re traveling I think, oh, perhaps he needs to have a bit of a break. And in five minutes he’s found something he wants to take a picture of. He’s also a frustrated collector, and by photographing things, he’s possessing them, in a way.”

Mega-mansions dressed to kill aren’t his favorite subject, but he finds a way to bring more than a gun-for-hire’s enthusiasm to the task. “Luckily, I only photograph the giant houses once in a while,” he says. “I can find sociological interest even in houses I find kind of horrific. These houses 20,000 square feet and upwards have huge kitchens, as large as the average small house, with all these gleaming industrial ranges and countertops which are almost landscapes in themselves. If I can, I always go up to the refrigerators and open the door, just out of curiosity.” More often than not, he discovers only diet soda lining the shelves.

Grand estates are largely absent from “Los Angeles,” the large-format book Street-Porter wrote and photographed. It is the second in a series about the architecture of great cities from Rizzoli — “New York,” photographed by Richard Berenholtz, came out first and Street-Porter has agreed to take on London next. The new book showcases the diverse architectural heritage of Los Angeles. Anyone whose vision of L.A. is limited to Hockney-esque swimming pools won’t be disappointed: Hockney pools are included. But so are gilded old movie theaters, Art Deco office towers, legendary hotels and Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, which Street-Porter considers “the iconic piece of architecture L.A. was waiting for all these years, and desperately needed.”

Los Angeles has the greatest concentration of distinguished residential architecture in the country — illustrated by Street-Porter’s images of homes by Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Rudolf M. Schindler, Richard Meier, John Lautner and others. The buildings are interspersed with landscapes and cityscapes, pictures of freeways, beaches and jacarandas in all their blooming purple glory, demonstrating that the photographer’s luscious and personal city tour would not be complete without consideration of the environment.

The book’s exceptionally vibrant color reproductions can be attributed to the low number of copies printed and the fact that Street-Porter doesn’t use a digital camera. He’s found that only film does justice to the local palette and spectacular light. “The light here really is equivalent to the light in the Mediterranean and in North Africa,” he says, “that attracted Klee, Cezanne, Van Gogh and Matisse — not that I’m comparing myself to them. It just has a sort of radiant quality, and we have it here nearly all the time. That’s important when you’re trying to use natural light for interiors, because interiors will look extremely gloomy when it’s cloudy.”

Robert Barrett, manager of Hennessy + Ingalls, the Santa Monica art and architectural bookstore, says, “Tim uses color really well, and that’s incredibly difficult to do, to make something look rich but not garish. He gets almost a visceral closeness to his projects. His photographs have a depth.”

With “Los Angeles” landing in stores soon, Street-Porter has already completed three-quarters of the pictures for his next book, tentatively titled “New American Decorating.” His wife will write the text for the book, which will be the couple’s first collaboration. He devoted a recent afternoon to shooting an apartment in a romantic old Hancock Park building for the project. Celebrity photographer Firooz Zahedi, a friend who sometimes photographs interiors, owns the apartment.

“Does the plant look too clunky?” Zahedi asks as Street-Porter snaps a Polaroid of a book-lined den. Street-Porter is taking a photojournalistic approach, shooting the rooms as they exist. His assistant is on vacation, so it’s just him, his camera, a Polaroid for light tests, a battered reflector or two, and two strobes, ready for action if needed. Zahedi bustles about, straightening the cover of a daybed, scattering a newspaper and remote control on a coffee table. His ministrations are welcome, but Street-Porter is well aware of the highly studied way shelter magazines give rooms the look of life, interrupted.

“It’s nice having a sense of a room being inhabited,” he says, “but not in ways that look clichéd. When you look at lots of magazines of interiors, you’ll see a tabletop and there’s always a napkin draped off the corner of the table just so. You want to find new, natural and understated ways of getting that kind of effect.”

Zahedi’s apartment was chosen, he says, because “Firooz does his own interiors extraordinarily well, and we want to include as many kinds of idiosyncratic interiors that aren’t done in the style of a showroom as we can. Firooz’s interiors seem much more lively than quite a lot of the work done by professional decorators. There’s nothing really wrong with the professionally decorated look, but if you’re doing a whole coffee-table book of nothing else, it can be dreary. That isn’t how everyone lives.”

The books Street-Porter has created since 1986 set him apart from other architectural photographers. His first, “Freestyle: The New Architecture and Design from Los Angeles,” highlighted a group of adventurous architects who were changing the look of the city, innovators such as Frank Gehry, Brian Murphy, Thom Mayne and Eric Moss. Although he photographed their work, Street-Porter also functioned as editor and writer, selecting projects to include, then explaining and interpreting them in the text. “Casa Mexicana” followed, in 1989.

“Most people decide to do books when they know something about a subject,” Kelly says. “Tim really only did ‘Casa Mexicana’ as an excuse to explore Mexico. And it worked.”

“The Los Angeles House: Decoration and Design in America’s 20th-Century City” is arranged chronologically, using words and pictures to provide a thorough chronicle of L.A.'s architectural history. The variety of styles that sprouted under the Southern California sun have often been ridiculed, but in the 1995 book, Street-Porter found a way to explain and celebrate the residential diversity that others dismissed as cacophonous.

Consciously or not, Street-Porter has been researching his books since he moved to Los Angeles in the late ‘70s. He and Kelly met in Sydney, Australia. When they decided to come to L.A. they had no long-term plan to stay. But one job led to another, one jasmine-scented spring gave way to another mild autumn.

Ordinarily, Los Angeles treats tourists like detainees, sending them to holding camps (Universal City and Disneyland), as if to say that we locals would rather not have aliens moving among us. Street-Porter found his own way by searching for architectural treasures. “Once you start to drive up the windy little streets into the hills, it’s hard not to fall in love with this place,” he says. “Around every corner there’s some extraordinary vista or landscape or some house in a wonderful style.”

Brad Caplow, an architect and third-generation Angeleno, says, “Tim sees L.A. with the fresh eyes of a transplant, and his photographs express the essence of the place. There’s a hopefulness to his work, a sense of how we live.”

The ridiculous to sublime range of buildings Street-Porter discovered suited his sense of humor. “You could drive around and see stuff … unintentionally amusing or very graphic. There was a kind of innocence in the man-made environment that’s largely gone because the city has become much more sophisticated. In the ‘70s, there weren’t trendy magazines and people just built whatever came into their heads. That’s how we got the big doughnut shop. Now that we’re all so knowing and hip, we’ve lost that whimsicality.”

Early on, the couple bought a white 1965 Coupe de Ville, acquired pristine vintage clothes at a Melrose shop called Cowboys and Poodles, and lived in a kind of midcentury heaven. Street-Porter worked mainly for Japanese and European magazines, documenting the early work of Frank Gehry and other architectural radicals.

They lived near the Hollywood Bowl, in a house with avocado, orange and fig trees in the yard. “We were only about a quarter of a mile from Highland Avenue, where there’d be hookers walking up and down the street,” he says. “Coyotes strolled past the house too. So we encountered these different forms of Hollywood wildlife.”

After “Casa Mexicana” was finished, Mexican furniture was crowded in with the Modernist pieces they’d collected. Their Euro-semigrand era began 15 years ago, when they bought Villa Villambrosa, a 1929 Venetian Gothic palazzo in Whitley Heights that could serve as the backdrop for an E.M. Forster story set in 19th century Italy. “You could say we have a theatrical side,” Kelly says, still looking like the sort of swinging London bird who’d wear cheeky miniskirts with white plastic boots. “It’s trying to create an atmosphere, to set a scene.”

Since the publishers and magazines Street-Porter works with are based in the East, three years ago the couple bought a house in Connecticut that resembles a 17th century cottage. They spend part of the year there and it has made including many Eastern homes in the next book easier.

“I haven’t had any wish to return to England, but ironically in Connecticut I’m suddenly surrounded by the names of all these places I associate with my early years,” Street-Porter says. “I said to Annie, ‘Buying this house is really one of the most radical things we’ve ever done.’ ”

Mimi Avins can be reached at