Wayne Thom, the Master Photographer Who Teased Out Brutalism’s Elegant Side
Like it or not, Brutalism is back. The late Modern style notable for its muscular massing, structural gymnastics, and rough slabs of raw concrete is experiencing something of a renaissance on multiple fronts: A new BBC show, The Game, based in 1970s London, glamorizes the Brutalist aesthetic the way Mad Men did midcentury Modernism. Popular web sites like Fuck Yeah Brutalism and Brutalism/Revival/Destruction highlight the style many never knew existed. And of course there are the glossy coffee table books, like Heroic, which features scores of such edifices in Boston, an improbable Brutalist capital.
And now Matter, Light, and Form, an exhibition at Woodbury University’s WUHO Gallery in Los Angeles, showcases the work of architectural photographer Wayne Thom, a premier chronicler of Brutalism and of late-Modernism in general.
Anyone who revisits Brutalism is liable to encounter Thom’s work. The photographer, who is the brother of famous Canadian architect Bing Thom, was born in Shanghai, but migrated to Vancouver before studying at Santa Barbara’s Brooks Institute. He graduated in 1968, around the time that Modernism’s practitioners were beginning to demonstrate greater technical sophistication, previously unseen sculptural ambition, and less interest in lightness and delicacy. For a gifted photographer like Thom, it was fortuitous timing; his clients included many of the country’s late Modern masters, including William Pereira, John Portman, Gio Ponti, and I.M. Pei.
Thom photographed many of the era’s most famous buildings, like San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid and the Denver Art Museum. But he also shot structures like the Robson Square Law Courts in Vancouver and St. Basil’s Church in Los Angeles—lesser-known edifices that nevertheless challenge preconceptions of the movement. While critics denounce the style’s monumental, unornamented buildings as cold, forbidding monstrosities, Thom captured their technical fluency, sculptural ambition, and clever economy.
Brutalist architects could levitate concrete like it was weightless and twist stone like clay. Other late-modern masters bent and waved mirrored glass and invented new typologies from steel and aluminum. “It was truly the merger of art and science,” Thom says of the genre’s best work. In all, Thom worked for more than 50 years, documenting upward of 2,800 projects. His archives were recently acquired by USC. “I wanted to share the architects’ skill and audacity, and stir curiosity,” he says. He likes to compare his photography to writing sentences, with elements like lighting, camera angle, color, texture, and material acting as adjectives describing a building.
John Portman, Bonaventure Hotel Wayne Thom
Gio Ponti, Denver Art Museum Wayne Thom
Arthur Erickson, Law Courts, Government Center, Robson Sq Wayne Thom
William Pereira, Geisel Library UCSD Wayne Thom
Photographed by Thom from below, the circular concrete balconies of Portman’s Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles appear to float, like oversized ornaments affixed with impossibly strong glue. A shot of Ponti’s Denver Museum reveals a kaleidoscope of windows—vertical, horizontal, diamond-shaped, and projecting— that reflect the building’s varied interior spaces. Thom’s photographs of the Robson Square Law Courts, by Arthur Erickson, capture the sculptural merger of geometric plaza and futuristic building, dramatically contrasting light and shadow, solid and void. William Pereira’s Geisel Library at UC San Diego, much like his Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco, is a a modern-era monument. In Thom’s photographs it dominates the frame, a foreboding ziggurat glowing from within.
“He seems to have an ability to deal with this extraordinary scale and these varied surfaces that I don’t think anybody else had,” says Nicolas Olsberg, the show’s curator. Thom surely owes some of that ability to the close relationships he forged with his subjects. Digital photography has made it easier for architects to chronicle the construction of their own work. In contrast, Thom was often asked to photograph buildings from conception to completion, including model shots, construction shots, and aerial shots. He studied them obsessively to better perceive their forms.
Thom never manipulated photographs in Photoshop, nor did he use artificial lighting. He wanted to “capture” buildings, not create scenes, as photographers like Julius Shulman—a good friend of Thom’s—were known to do. Sometimes he’d wait days to get the right light. Once he left a vacation on Catalina Island in a storm to capture Langdon Wilson’s mirrored CNA Building reflecting the red sky in Los Angeles. For Robson Square, he stopped workmen from installing a stair railing so he could get the perfect, uninterrupted shot.
“They were quite uncompromising” says Olsberg of the period’s architects, a quality he says was at once their greatest strength and most limiting weakness. That characteristic could create radical structures, but not always places that people wanted to be. It’s the same reason the public eventually soured on late-Modernism in general. Perhaps pictures are the ideal place to appreciate their phenomenal achievements; regardless of what you think of the buildings themselves, it’s impossible not to appreciate the skill behind them—not just of the architects, but of unsung photographers like Thom, who made their work visible to the world.
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