Mirrors and Mass: Wayne Thom’s Southern California


Wayne Thom is one of the most important architectural photographers of the 20th century. Throughout his 50-year career, he photographed over 2,800 projects, traveling to all corners of the world to capture the work of notable architects and architectural firms, such as A. Quincy Jones, Albert C. Martin & Associates, William Pereira and Associates, Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall (DMJM), Skidmore Owings & Merrill, and I.M. Pei. The work in this exhibition represents his Southern California commissions from 1968, when he started his career, to 1979, a period and region in which he was particularly prolific. During this time, he photographed some of the most significant contributions to Late Modern architecture, including the Northridge Congregational Church, CNA Building, Bonaventure Hotel, Geisel Library, Bank of America Atlantic Richfield Towers, and the vertical redevelopments of Wilshire Boulevard and Century City. These photographs were broadly published, shaping the way an entire generation of viewers interpreted this heady moment of technological progress and urban expansion.

Born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, Thom immigrated to Vancouver as a young man before eventually moving to the United States and settling in California. He had experimented with photography since childhood and decided to pursue it professionally. To gain greater technical proficiency, he enrolled in the Brooks Institute’s Commercial Photography program in Santa Barbara. After graduating in 1968, he chose to work in the architecture field because, he told the American Society of Photographers, “it was an area in which I could excel, which I would enjoy more than any other… I know what [architects] need, and can communicate on their level.” Over 90% of Thom’s clients were architects, although he did some notable work with interior designers, engineers, and developers. At a time when architects were discouraged from advertising their services, Thom helped them self-promote by producing architectural brochures, corporate logos, and multimedia presentations. This comprehensive attitude toward photography extended to graphic design work, a significant part of his professional portfolio.

Thom’s passion for architecture is evident not only in his images, but also in the close friendships he made with many of his architectural clients. The most important early influence was A. Quincy Jones, Dean of the USC School of Architecture and Fine Arts from 1975 to 1978. Jones stressed selectivity, urging Thom to stray away from photographing untruthful and unjustifiable designs. This advice shaped the entirety of Thom’s career. He only photographed work that captured his imagination, particularly newer experiments in poured concrete construction and mirror glass architecture that came to define the period. While some critics dismissed these architectural styles as uninviting and cold, Thom, according to Sam Lubell for Wired Magazine, sought to capture their “technical fluency, sculptural ambition and clever economy.”

This dedication to the power of photography to showcase innovative design was epitomized in his photograph of the CNA Building in Los Angeles (now the Los Angeles Superior Court Tower) designed by Langdon and Wilson, and completed in 1972. Submitted as an entry to the 1973 Pittsburgh Plate Glass Architectural Photographers Invitational competition, the photograph​ earned the first place award and jumpstarted his career. The remarkable story behind how he produced the winning image is documented in an interview with the photographer in this exhibition. As with all of his assignments, Thom studied the building from sunrise to sunset, and then returned to the site at just the right moment to capture it under perfect environmental conditions—the day after a storm, when dramatic early-morning clouds floated past the tower’s reflective surface.

When Thom began his career in architectural photography in 1968, architecture in Los Angeles was at a turning point. Redevelopment money was altering the city’s traditional downtown and, only a decade earlier, restrictions on building heights were lifted prompting a building boom in new and old business districts. Local architectural firms had become large enterprises in the postwar period in response to accelerated economic and population growth. Though a serious recession and the oil crisis in 1973 would slow down the momentum and push Thom to expand his portfolio outside of California, Los Angeles continued to build apace.

Much of the work from 1968 to 1979 reproduced in this exhibition shows how Thom captured downtown Los Angeles’ emerging skyline. The new buildings appear to stand alone in their landscapes. Many of the buildings Thom recorded, such as the granite and glass towers of City National Plaza (formerly ARCO), completed in 1972 and designed by AC Martin Partners, exemplify the tall, linear form widely employed in Los Angeles and elsewhere. This corporate modernism is also evident in the Bank of America Atlantic Richfield Towers. Thom photographs them facing off with one another, each twin echoed in the other’s gleaming facade. Thom’s photographs convey the reflective beauty of their smooth, mirrored surfaces, a glass skin that, according to architectural historian Daniel Paul, became the vernacular for business parks and skylines throughout Southern California.

In a notable shift from the intense verticality of the surrounding office towers downtown was the Bonaventure Hotel by John Portman and Associates, completed in 1975. An ice queen encased in mirrored glass atop a six-story platform, the Bonaventure was viewed as a symbol of social anxiety, and Thom’s photographs of the building, including the 1978 cover of Progressive Architecture, were widely circulated to illustrate the turbulent times.

As the tall building was slowly evolving downtown, Thom also recorded the bold forms and spaces that were taking shape elsewhere in the region. The horizontal lines and rounded corners of the Federal Aviation Administration building in Hawthorne, completed by DMJM in 1973, reminds us of 1930s Streamline Moderne this time clad in mirrored glass and aluminum. In other contexts, pre-cast concrete was being used to express new shapes on corporate campuses and in civic buildings. Restrained examples of the type included Luckman Partnership’s Prudential Savings Warner Center, and the elegant Brutalism of St. Basil Catholic Church (1969) by Albert C. Martin & Associates. Meanwhile, one of Thom’s biggest clients, William Pereira and Associates, was giving exuberant life to the Pacific Mutual Life Insurance building in Newport Beach (1972), and the Geisel Library at the University of California San Diego in La Jolla, completed in 1970.

For Thom, “Architecture is a piece of functional sculpture - a work of art that just happens to have people working or living in it. My task,” he told the American Society of Photographers, “is to place these large sculptures onto two-dimensional places in a way that captures the viewer’s interest, induces emotion, and arouses curiosity.” In this Thom has been exceedingly successful. A fellow of the American Society of Photographers since 1980, he has served on the USC Architectural Guild and the Board of Advisors at Brooks Institute of Photography, and has received numerous awards, including a Modern Masters Award from the Los Angeles Conservancy. But his enduring contribution is best understood in the context of his archive, which USC Libraries acquired in 2015. With images documenting over 2,800 projects, all of Thom’s graphic design work, and biographical ephemera, it is a remarkable contribution to the history of architecture and the inspiration for this online exhibition.

We would like to thank the following people for their invaluable contribution to this exhibition: Wayne Thom, Curtis Fletcher, Suzanne Noruschat, Wayne Shoaf, USC Special Collections, USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study, and USC Digital Library.

Go to Exhibit


Architect's Diary and Planner from 1977, Box 268. Wayne Thom Photographer negatives, photographs, and other material. Collection no. 6105. Special Collections. USC Libraries. University of Southern California. 

Brooks Institute of Photography brochure, Box 267. Wayne Thom Photographer negatives, photographs, and other material. Collection no. 6105. Special Collections. USC Libraries. University of Southern California.

De Wit, Wim, and Christopher James Alexander, eds. Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future, 1940- 1990.  Los Angeles: the Getty Research Institute, 2013.

Gelernter, Mark.  A History of American Architecture: Buildings in their Cultural and Technological Context. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 1999.

Harwood, Elain, and Alan Powers. “From Downturn to Diversity, Revisiting the 1970s.” Twentieth Century Architecture, no. 10 (2012): 8- 35.

Hawthorne, Christopher. “In Wayne Thom's Revelatory Show, a Generation of L.A. buildings Gets Needed Attention.” Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2015.  

Hawthorne, Christopher. “Westin Bonaventure Architect, John Portman.” Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2018.

Hawthorne, Christopher. "The Wrong Kind of Time Capsule." Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2018.

“Isolating Beauty,” October 1981, Box 267.  Wayne Thom Photographer negatives, photographs, and other material. Collection no. 6105. Special Collections. USC Libraries. University of Southern California. 

Kaplan, Sam Hall.  LA Lost and Found: An Architectural History of Los Angeles.  New York: Crown Publishers, 1987.

Los Angeles Now: An Exhibition Selected and Organized by Barbara Goldstein and Peter Cook, London: Architectural Association, 1983.

Lubell, Sam. “Wayne Thom, the Master Photographer Who Teased out Brutalism’s Elegant Side.” Wired, November 26, 2015.

Paul, Daniel. "Photographer Wayne Thom Captured Late Modernism Like No One Else." Architect's Newspaper, July 10, 2015.

Paul, Daniel. “Smooth Operator: Late-Modern Mirror Glass Architecture, 1970- 1985.” Presentation at AA School of Architecture, March 1, 2018.

Thom, Wayne.  Correspondence by email with Krista Nicholds, March 20, 2018.

Winship, Sian. Quantity and Quality: Architects Working for Developers in Southern California, 1960- 1973.  Master of Historic Preservation thesis, University of Southern California School of Architecture, December 2011.

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