American Photo: Capturing L.A. modernism and Mexican style.
After four decades of shooting, Tim Street-Porter is still one of our busiest architectural photographers. He travels the world on assignment for top design and architectural magazines in addition to working extensively on books — not to mention shooting for designers. He has a new book due out in April and is in talks about another to follow. Plus, at an age when many would consider retirement, Street- Porter is entering the digital realm.
Not one to follow convention, Street-Porter made an impulsive leap into photography. While studying architecture at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Architecture in London in the mid-’60s, he was awarded a student exchange scholarship in San Francisco. “America was thrillingly indigenous: transportation, graphics, street signage, refrigerators — everything was made in the USA.” He documented this yearlong visit on color slides and 8mm movie film to create a mixed-media show titled Captain America. Back in London, the exhibition debuted to a sold-out audience at the Royal College of Art.
That success led, in part, to his next big decision. “Suddenly in my final year of school, I had to choose: architecture or photography? Photography won.”
Guided by friend and fashion designer Emmanuelle Khanh, Street-Porter immediately immersed himself in his newfound passion. “I went to Paris with my Nikon F and photographed several new events in the design world, including a futuristic André Courrèges fashion show and a display of transparent inflatable furniture designed by Khanh’s husband, Quasar Khanh.”
Developed in the basement laundry room of his parents’ home, these pictures landed Street-Porter his first published work — four pages in British society magazine Queen (later Harper’s & Queen and now Harper’s Bazaar U.K.) — and his first assignments, including shooting the Strand Palace Hotel in London and some studio work.
Beyond talent, Street-Porter credits his relationships for helping him break into magazine work. “Overnight I had become a photographer with a rapidly growing portfolio of tear sheets from a leading magazine thanks to a miraculous rapport with its art director,” he says. Though he considers fostering connections in the industry for consistent work a “crap shoot,” editors who have hired him cite his solid communication and ability to deliver on a shot list among reasons they keep going back to him.
In 1978, Street-Porter made Los Angeles his new home, attracted by “the desert light, the ’50s/’60s architecture, the enigmatic palm trees, the sense of freedom and space.”
While his work for magazines including Architectural Digest and The World of Interiors takes him all over the world, the City of Angels remains the primary subject of many of his photographs and therefore his books (published by Rizzoli). In fact, his take on Southern California is so iconic that when the Annenberg Space for Photography on Avenue of the Stars opened in 2009, its inaugural exhibit, Los Angeles, featured Street-Porter’s creative portrayals of the city’s architecture.
Approaching architectural shooting creatively is an ongoing challenge. “A building is like a huge sculpture, fixed in place, which limits opportunities to be really innovative.” An example of how he has addressed this challenge can be seen in his book Los Angeles (2006), in a shot of a tangled spaghetti junction where two freeways meet. “I rented a helicopter and used a Canon 35mm SLR with a 90mm tilt-shift lens. This gave me an abstraction and created a visual surprise: Was it real, or was it a model?”
Other stunning images result from a combination of Street-Porter’s technical mastery and architectural education. “I can read a space really well, which helps composition and in communicating a building’s spaces and structural forms to really show what the building is all about.”