SAHARA Highlights: The Photographs of the Architect William Kessler

by Jacqueline Spafford and Mark Hinchman, SAHARA Co-Editors | Aug 15, 2022

Like many architects, William Kessler (1924–2003) traveled a great deal throughout his life and became an accomplished photographer. There are 2404 of his photographs in SAHARA, which all stem from his travels. Others contributed photographs of his accomplished work as an architect. Looking at his output created over decades, it is clear that he was interested in the formal aspects of architectural photography, and there are certain motifs that he relied on repeatedly. If he took ten photographs of a particular building, one of them would be abstractly rotated at an angle, its edges cut off from the picture plane. He liked to shoot urban vistas with the edges of a door or archway framing the view. He favored urban shots of winding streets, with a focal point in the distance. Yet his photographs also indicate that he was aware of standard ways of shooting famous buildings. If he shot an iconic building, he would often position it as had typically been represented. He was interested in architecture, ancient and contemporary, vernacular and monumental, and across the globe. Museum interiors seemed to fascinate him, and it is the only subject type in which he regularly featured people, capturing them as they stared intently at an artwork, or abstractly walking by, sometimes in a blur.

Some photographs make their way into SAHARA’s collection when they are contributed all at once, as with the Kessler collection. Had SAHARA existed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, it is tempting to think that he would have been an on-going contributor. Please consider adding your own photographs to SAHARA. They tell a story to future generations, and they are a record of your travels, your tastes, your interests, and your aesthetic choices.

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Greek temple shot at angle
Temple of Aphaia, Aegina, Greece, circa 500 BCE. Photograph by William Kessler, 1981. Kessler relied on certain photographic layouts repeatedly, and one of them was to slant the subject, giving a realistic photograph abstract qualities.

detail of hand of statue
Recumbent statue of Ramesses II, Memphis, Egypt, circa 1213 BCE. Photograph by William Kessler. Kessler had a sustained interest in ancient cultures, and he traveled to Greece, Egypt, and Mexico. This photograph shows his occasional interest in details, and his interest in photographing museum interiors.

view down cobble stone street
Karolinenstrasse, Bamberg, Germany. Photograph by William Kessler, 1981. Kessler favored views of streets or walkways that wind away to the distance, sometimes ending on a focal point, as here with the Rathaus. He travelled a great deal in Germany and Austria.

reflecting pool in center of modern courtyard
Ramirez Vázquez, Pedro; Mijares Alcérreca, Rafael; and Campuzano, Jorge. National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City, Mexico, 1964. Photograph by William Kessler, 1967. Kessler travelled a great deal in Mexico, and photographed buildings, ancient and contemporary. He sometimes was creative in his layouts, he also frequently relied on the canonical way of showing a building, as here with a shot that captures the entirety of the courtyard canopy that rests on a single column.

modern white interior with rectangular fountain
Eero Saarinen, American Embassy, London, UK, 1957–1958. Photograph by William Kessler, 1965. For years this purpose-built embassy reigned as the United States’ largest in Europe. It was recently turned into a hotel.

building on water with roof of curved masses
Jørn Utzon, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia, 1959–1973. Photograph by William Kessler.

view from walkway to chateau in distance
Unknown. Château de Chambord, Chambord, France, 1519–1547. Photograph by William Kessler, 1965.  ­­

gallery interior with woman and girl
Josep Lluís Sert. Fondation Maeght, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France, 1959–1964. Photograph by William Kessler, 1965. There are several examples in SAHARA’s Kessler collection of his visiting a building within years of its construction.

ornamented one-story building with arched entryway
Otto Wagner, Stadtbahn entry, Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria, 1898–99. Photograph by William Kessler, 1981. Most of Kessler’s photographs that were contributed to SAHARA date to the 1960s and 1980s.

couple walk down sidewalk with Brutalist building in background
William Kessler and Associates, Center for Creative Studies, Detroit, Michigan, 1972–1975. Photograph by George Everard Kidder Smith. This is an art and music school, still in use. It is described as Brutalist, and bears comparison to the work of the Metabolists. Kathryn Bishop Eckert wrote the Archipedia essay: http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/MI-01-WN65




Founded in 1940, the Society of Architectural Historians is an international nonprofit membership organization that promotes the study, interpretation and conservation of architecture, design, landscapes and urbanism worldwide. SAH serves a network of local, national and international institutions and individuals who, by profession or interest, focus on the built environment and its role in shaping contemporary life. SAH promotes meaningful public engagement with the history of the built environment through advocacy efforts, print and online publications, and local, national and international programs.
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