Picturing Esther McCoy

By the Archives

March 3, 2014

In celebration of the Esther McCoy papers being available in the Archives of American Art’s Terra Foundation Center for Digital Collections, writer Susan Morgan looks at some notable photographs of the architectural historian and critic.

Photograph of Esther McCoy
Esther McCoy, ca. 1944 / unidentified photographer. Esther McCoy papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

In 1991, when I was about to be transplanted from New York to Los Angeles, a friend suggested that I read Five California Architects, Esther McCoy’s 1960s classic—an extraordinary book described by Reyner Banham as “so damned readable it was in a different league than most architectural literature.” I bought a first edition copy and was soon blithely lost in McCoy’s writing. On the book’s flyleaf, the author’s photo was an informal black and white portrait taken by Julius Shulman, a photographer famed for his hyper-cinematic depictions of mid-century modern houses. The picture of McCoy, however, was a cropped headshot set against a soft backdrop of dappled sunlight: an attractively understated woman dressed in a dark sleeveless shift, looks to one side, her lips parted as if she might be mildly amused or caught mid-conversation.

Julius Shulman photograph of Esther McCoy
Esther McCoy from the portrait session for "Five California Architects," 1959 / Julius Shulman, photographer. Esther McCoy papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Eager to read more McCoy, my next bookstore purchase was Arts & Architecture: The Entenza Years, a 1990 anthology featuring a jazzy chartreuse and black patchwork cover, a selection of facsimile pages from this influential publication, and an essay by McCoy. This time, the author’s photograph, taken nearly thirty years later, was by Deborah Sussman, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer known for her playfully sophisticated style and monumental projects. Sussman’s portrait is casual, intimate, and precise: wearing a white dress shirt topped by a short-sleeved black sweater, McCoy gently leans into the picture, pausing between a remark and a smoke. When the New York Times published “A Chronicler of California Architecture” a 1984 profile by McCoy’s great friend and colleague Joseph Giovannini, the story opened with a photo by Sussman and a knockout description: “With her white severely cut hair, direct gaze and the ever present cigarette she holds like a pencil, the Los Angeles writer and architectural historian looks like a personality.” Although sometimes mistaken for Lillian Hellman or Georgia O’Keeffe, notes Giovannini, McCoy was in fact “very much her own figure.”

In researching McCoy’s life and work, I’ve read a wide range of her writing, both published and private, and looked at hundreds of photographs, images that span most of the twentieth century. Photographs from McCoy’s childhood—she was born in 1904 and grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas—convey Edwardian era home comforts, stout bungalows and new automobiles, in the American Midwest.

In one schoolgirl portrait, McCoy, posed against flowered wallpaper by a curtained window, sports Sunday best—a dress with a middy collar and knife pleat skirt, an enormous hair bow, and a thoughtful but somewhat skeptical expression.

Photograph of Esther McCoy around age twelve
Esther McCoy approximately twelve years old, circa 1916 / unidentified photographer. Esther McCoy papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Passport of Esther McCoy
Esther McCoy passport, 1927. Esther McCoy papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

By the time she was twenty-one, McCoy had arrived in Greenwich Village to pursue life as a writer. Her fashion sense had become pared down, deliberate, and Jazz Age-appropriate but her expression remained remarkably unchanged. In an unpublished memoir, she considered her 1927 passport picture and wrote:

…straight brows, straight gaze and almost straight lips. I look unrelentingly into the camera lens, as if it were the fate I well knew I deserved…I see no more than the V-necked blouse of a two piece jersey dress, and it recalls to me that I began wearing knits long before they were popular, and long before ways had been found to keep the sag out of the seat.

 

Photographs of McCoy deliver telling glimpses of both her individual biography and a larger view of a thoroughly modern woman living on the progressive edge of the twentieth century. Over the course of seven decades, from that first passport photo to Sussman’s urbane snapshots, McCoy always appears bracingly contemporary, straightforward, and bright: in the 1930s, she’s pictured holding her signature cigarette, dressed in a striped T shirt, swimsuit, and white sneakers, outside a Southern California dune shack; in the 1940s, walking down the street of her hometown, she is Katharine Hepburn-like in trousers and a well-tailored jacket; and in the 1950s, standing at the top of the stairs at Casa Barragan in Mexico City, her silhouette in a simple blouse and full-skirt is framed by the sharp geometry of the architectural space.

Photograph of Esther McCoy and Albert Robert
Esther McCoy and Albert Robert, ca. 1933 / unidentified photographer. Esther McCoy papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Maynard L. Parker photograph of Esther McCoy
Esther McCoy, ca. 1946 / Maynard L. Parker, photographer. Esther McCoy papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As someone who never met McCoy, I “know” her entirely through images, words, and anecdotes. Reading architect Michael McDonough’s 1989 appreciation, “First Lady of L.A. Architecture” in Metropolitan Home, I found the accompanying photograph disconcerting. McCoy, who had indeed been employed as a draftsman during the 1940s, is posed at a pristine, graphite-free drawing board. Her hair is coiffed, crimped into waves, and her sharply pressed white blouse is uncharacteristically fussy. I thought there was something wrong with this picture. Photographed by Maynard L. Parker in 1946 or ‘47, it’s an oddly staid composition, more reminiscent of early nineteenth century neoclassical painting than postwar Los Angeles: a pensive woman at an easel, seated before a large window, is gently illuminated by daylight.

A prolific photographer, Parker was a favorite at House Beautiful and a regular contributor to other mid-century home design magazines. When his McCoy portrait, one of the first images from the McCoy papers at the Archives of American Art to be individually digitized, appeared on-line it became popular with a new generation of magazine art directors and editors.

Each time I saw the photograph reproduced, I felt uneasy. I could recognize McCoy but I was always reminded of something else, an image out of a more distant past—a painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Young Woman Drawing (1801) by Marie-Denise Lemoine Villers—formerly misattributed as a portrait of Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Jacques-Louis David. The staginess of the Parker portrait seemed to represent a picturesque idea of a lady artist at work rather than a portrait of an actual woman.

Parker’s archive of “approximately 58,000 negatives, transparencies, and photographs” is housed at The Huntington Library. In the summer of 2009, responding to a query I’d sent regarding an article featuring Parker images in an out-of-print magazine, I received an email from Jenny Watts, the Huntington’s Curator of Photographs: “Re: the picture from Mademoiselle (George Turner residence in La Canada)—this is one of my favorite photo shoots in the collection as it gives a wonderfully complete picture of middle class modernism from the period…” she wrote, providing links for the collection’s newly scanned images. “I’m assuming the woman is the architect, but I’d like to know who.”

In Parker’s theatrically-lit and highly staged scenes of sun-kissed domestic bliss, models were hired to portray can-do dads tending the barbecue, happy moms carrying the birthday cake, and children merrily gathering ‘round the Christmas tree. Of course, when I clicked on the link, I discovered that the earnest architect in the Turner house photo shoot—carefully styled and posed at her drawing board—was being played Esther McCoy.

 

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Susan Morgan has written extensively about art, design, and cultural biography. A former contributing editor for Interview, Mirabella, and Metropolitan Home, she is a contributing editor for Aperture and www.eastofborneo.org, the collaborative online art journal and archive. With support from the Graham Foundation, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, and the NEH, Morgan has been researching the life and work of writer Esther McCoy. She is editor of Piecing Together Los Angeles: An Esther McCoy Reader (2012), the first McCoy anthology, and co-curator (with Kimberli Meyer) of Sympathetic Seeing (2011), for the MAK Center at the R. M. Schindler House, West Hollywood, CA.

Comments

Nicely explored Ms. Morgan !
A. Mexi