Capturing the Late Modern
Photographer Wayne Thom and author Emily Bills discuss an under-appreciated era in architecture.
When a renewed interest in Late Modernism arrives, there’s a good chance Wayne Thom’s photography will play a role in understanding the buildings that best represent the period.
Thom, now 87, began his prolific career in 1968. His work took him around the world but was mostly rooted in the U.S. West Coast; he was busiest through the 1970s and 80s. Raised in Hong Kong and based in the Los Angeles area since college, Thom meticulously captured the suburban and urban office complexes, data and research centers, banks, libraries, and university buildings — by both emerging and revered firms — that represented California’s postwar economic growth and the technological innovation it invited.
Late Modern architecture — which often resembles exaggerated or experimental twists on its Miesian predecessors — does not provoke like Brutalism, nor signify handsome restraint like midcentury Modernism. Still, it tells an important story of the glamour and ambitions that mark its era. Thom’s work for SOM includes office towers, data centers, and a symphony hall, all thanks to an introduction to Chuck Bassett (partner at SOM from 1955 to 1981) during one of his visits to San Francisco. His relationship with the firm continued through Marc Goldstein’s partnership (from 1970 to 1987).
Thom’s archives were acquired by the University of Southern California, where A. Quincy Jones, the architect who gave Thom his start as a professional photographer, was once dean of the School of Architecture. Some of these works, including photos of Los Angeles’s Crocker (now Wells Fargo) Center and Bank of America data centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, are also featured in the newly-published monograph Wayne Thom: Photographing The Late Modern (The Monacelli Press). Written by author and curator Emily Bills, the book puts his work in the context of the West Coast’s economic might during the second half of the 20th century. As Bills notes, Thom’s approach to his craft came at a critical time for Late Modernism, when “[a]rchitects breaking boxes and pouring forms that levitated and spread out needed a photographer with fresh eyes not steeped in the International Style.”
We recently spoke with the writer and photographer behind the monograph to learn more about Thom’s career, the West Coast boom he was a part of, and why his work is critical to understanding and appreciating Late Modernism.
What interested you in becoming an architectural photographer?
Wayne: I was always interested in architecture, and photography had been a hobby of mine since I was 10. What steered me towards it was my experience doing nature photography before I was a professional. When I look at mountains or trees, I’m reminded of high-rises.
I always wanted to specialize in a type of photography. Photographing architecture is a joy and it’s the only subject I photograph professionally. I don’t have to be patient with buildings! They stand still. They don’t need time to readjust. People are involved, but only to illustrate the scale of the architecture and the functionality of the project. I just wait for the right time of day so that the light is proper, and choose a camera angle that allows me to best express the sculptural form.
Your brother Bing was an architect. Did he influence your interest in buildings?
Wayne: He was the youngest of the three of us, so when he was in architecture school I was already at the Brooks Institute of Photography. We were in contact a lot and we talked about architecture. When he finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of British Columbia he took a job with Arthur Erickson, and that’s how I got involved with that firm and really developed an interest in architecture. Arthur probably influenced me to get into architectural photography more than anyone else, but A. Quincy Jones is the one who got me started.
Emily, what inspired you to make a book about Wayne’s work?
Emily: I was teaching a course at USC for their heritage conservation program and I wanted to expose the students to working in an archive. I developed a project where we’d work in one of the university’s architecture or planning collections — something to do with conservation — and develop an online exhibition. USC happened to have just obtained Wayne’s archives, and I already knew him because he had done an exhibition at Woodbury University, where I’m faculty. We were deep in the archives and it was great fun. I had a real sense I wanted to continue that project, so I figured the next step was a book and maybe a larger exhibition, which we still hope to have at the Pacific Asian Museum once COVID is over. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Wayne and his archive, so we moved towards making a book.
You can’t pigeonhole Late Modernism and you can’t pigeonhole Wayne.
I went through the archives by myself, photographed everything, and then Wayne and I would do these really long interview sessions. He has an encyclopedic memory of every architect he ever worked with and every building he ever photographed. He also remembered what went on in the offices of those architects: who was the handshaker, who was having drinks at lunch, and who was building the models. I’d show him his pictures and he would start sharing great stories.
The other part of it was that I really wanted to highlight the importance of heritage conservation for Late Modern architecture. A lot of these buildings are ignored, threatened, or torn down. I fell in love with a lot of the architecture and Wayne is very passionate about these buildings. To see some of it threatened or disappear was even more of an impetus to create a book and generate public awareness.
What makes this period of California’s history in relation to Late Modernism unique?
Emily: Late Modern architecture can’t be pinpointed to a singular style — and that’s what I find so exciting about the period — it’s truly a moment of experimentation. California, especially Southern California, was still an important place for architects during that period. It was where they had the freedom to develop ideas, and not be hampered by the traditions of the East Coast.
The mirrored glass architecture that Anthony Lumsden developed with Cesar Pelli started on the East Coast, with Bell Labs, but it was developed in Los Angeles once they came out to work for DMJM. That mirrored glass architecture found a home in Southern California. The first true all-over mirrored glass building, the CNA Building in Los Angeles, is still standing. At the same time, there’s a lot of dynamic poured concrete architecture like the Geisel Library at UCSD or the Transamerica Building — structures where architects are pushing and pulling at what they can do with the technology and materials at their disposal. And then you have these hippie structures, bohemian wood houses in Big Sur, Southern California, and Hawaii. All of this is happening at the same time. And Wayne was capturing all of it.
Wayne, how did you first connect with SOM?
Wayne: My connection to the San Francisco office is actually through Betty Thompson, who was the West Coast editor of Architectural Record. They were publishing quite a few of my projects, so every time I went to San Francisco I’d have a meeting with her and it turned out that her office was right across from SOM’s office. She introduced me to Chuck Bassett and I became good friends with him. He was one of my first San Francisco clients.
From then on I would visit Chuck whenever I visited Betty. Chuck was a real gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. Very intellectual. He was so cordial and always made time for me. A wonderful client of many years. I wished I had spent more time in San Francisco because I could have worked with him more.
If I remember right, the first project I did for that office was a high-rise on Market Street, then the Bank of America data center downtown, and then Davies Symphony Hall. After Chuck retired I worked with Marc Goldstein, who I actually first met when he was in the Los Angeles office, which is where I did more work for SOM, mostly for MCA in Studio City, including the amphitheater there and 10 Universal City Plaza. I also photographed the PacWest Center in Portland, which was by SOM’s office up there.
The book has some of your photos from two Bank of America data centers by SOM. What was it like to explore and photograph such an enclosed building type?
Wayne: The data center in San Francisco was fantastic. Because of its function there were no windows to look out of. But it had a lounge for employees with a skylight and fantastic supergraphics on the wall. Such a beautiful space. The rest of it was all computers wall-to-wall in a solid square box. The one in Los Angeles was the same situation. My favorite photo of that one is away from the building with flowers in the foreground and the building very suddenly in the background. The exteriors on both of them were very nice, clean, typical SOM minimalist approaches. The texture on the facades minimized their massiveness. The Los Angeles one has since been torn down but the San Francisco one is still standing.
There are also a few of your photos from a much larger and more visible SOM project, the Crocker Center in Los Angeles. What about that complex stood out to you?
Wayne: It’s one of my favorite projects in Los Angeles. A very simple design with a unique shape: two towers connected through the food court. Sculpturally, it’s a beautiful piece of art so I had no problem taking good photographs, especially inside the food court. It was wonderfully landscaped. The roof was a skylight. There was beautiful artwork inside. Just an unbelievable place. I was very fortunate to do that project.
The photos of the people in and around Crocker Center feel very authentic and active. How would you compare the way people exist in Wayne’s work to some of his contemporaries?
Emily: Across the board, most architects don’t want people in their photographs and the photographer decides what they’re going to do about that. Julius Shulman took plenty of photos without people in them, but then became famous for his lifestyle photographs in Life and other magazines — but that doesn’t mean the architect wanted those and some didn’t work with him as a result. Wayne had the same experience. Some architects want the clean shot that’s just about the building, and he’d give them that, but he also thought it was important to have people in the buildings in the photographs. In the case of a new bank or mall, he’d remind his clients that if you’re looking at a building without people, you’re looking at a failing business. He didn’t pose people; he liked to show them in action and you see it throughout his work. It’s all candid. No artificial lighting either. He wanted to show buildings in the way that they were used day-to-day.
What about his photographic style stands out to you as being distinctly Wayne?
Emily: You can’t pigeonhole Late Modernism and you can’t pigeonhole Wayne. His photographic approach is centered on capturing the specific qualities of the buildings themselves. There’s no continuous thread, other than that they’re all fabulous and technically excellent. He’s such an admirer of the architecture itself. He takes time to understand the architect’s intention, the materials, the techniques in the individual buildings he photographs. How he approaches the building has to be transformed to meet the needs of the building itself. He’s going to photograph a skyscraper differently than he would a concrete library or a mirrored glass office park.
You look at an Ezra Stoller photograph and you see a very clear International Style intention. You know it’s a Stoller as soon as you see it. With Wayne Thom, he’s a flexible photographer — he’s going to do what’s right for that particular building.
Read more about SOM’s history:
Rethinking Modernism: What Can Architects Learn from Philosophy?
Two of our designers have big ideas about reviving mid-century landmarks.
‘Bun’ Makes a Donut
How Gordon Bunshaft came up with the National Mall’s most curious architectural treat.