Julius Shulman, whose compelling photographs of iconic Southern California residences defined an aesthetic that still seems contemporary, died on July 15 at the age of 98.
For over seventy years, through 7,000 photography sessions, and with 70,000 negatives, Julius Shulman captured the elusive spirit of architecture with an unerring eye and indefatigable character
“I’m always identified as being the best architectural photographer in the world,” declares Shulman. “I disclaim that. I say, ‘One of the best.’ ”
“He knew how to make architect’s photographs,” says Wim de Wit, head of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Getty Research Institute, “but he also took images he could sell to the book and magazine publishers that he knew.” This business sense helped promote him while widely disseminating his clients’ work and the Southern California lifestyle.
Architects Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and Pierre Koenig were among the best known subjects for his images. Shulman also documented the seminal Case Study houses—a project he did without compensation from the designers.
Wim De Wit knew Shulman well and has worked with the archive of 260,000 prints, negatives, and transparencies—Shulman’s total output between 1936 and 1996—since it was donated to the Getty in 2005. “He used very particular angles, including the ceiling in the space,” says de Wit. “There’s always light from the next space that gives you a sense of the entire layout.”
ABOUT JULIUS SHULMAN (1910 – 2009)
Photographer of architecture, naturalist, educator, and commentator on urban form. One of the leading architectural photographers of the 20th century, Shulman developed close association with the modernist architects, principally those active in Southern California such as Gregory Ain, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, and R.M. Schindler.
Shulman’s images played a major role in crafting the image of the Los Angeles and “Southern California lifestyle” to the rest of the nation and world during the 1950s and 1960s.
A prolific author, consultant, lecturer, exhibitor, and editor of his own vast archive, Shulman remained active up until his passing away in July of 2009.
Julius Shulman, whose luminous photographs of homes and buildings brought fame to a number of mid-20th century modernist architects and made him a household name in the architectural world, has died. He was 98.
Shulman, who had been in declining health, died Wednesday night at his home in Los Angeles, according to his daughter Judy McKee.
Starting with Richard Neutra in 1936, Shulman’s roster of clients read like a who’s who of pioneering contemporary architecture: Rudolf M. Schindler, Gregory Ain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, Raphael S. Soriano, John Lautner, Eero Saarinen, Albert Frey, Pierre Koenig, Harwell Harris and many others. His work was contained in virtually every book published on modernist architects.
In 1960, Julius Shulman took a photograph that to this day remains the paragon of architectural photography. Case Study House #22 (below) shows the dreamlike, cinematic Los Angeles that has been etched into our collective conscious. Even at the age of 98, Shulman continues to take photographs with the help of his working partner Juergen Nogai. The two met about 10 years ago, and Shulman came out of retirement to work with the like-minded Nogai.
If you have an idea of what California looked like in the 1960s and ’70s, Shulman is probably partially responsible for it. He has set the industry standard on many levels — for both architects and photographers alike.
Despite a lifetime behind the lens, however, Shulman and Nogai both eschew the term photo shoot. “Shoot?” says Shulman, laughing. “Look at me. Do I have a gun? I’m a photographer.” Nogai explains: “People are not thinking anymore; they’re just shooting.” Some would agree that the digital age has enabled a decrease in deliberation. If you can fill up a memory card with 1,000 images until you get the perfect one, after all, why stop to carefully compose?
But what most typifies a Shulman/Nogai photograph is meticulous composition that will guide your eye endlessly, if you allow it. These photographers are notorious for the amount of careful consideration that formulates each frame. They’ve spent up to nine hours on assignment to leave with a mere 11 frames. Eleven perfect frames, that is.
When describing their photographic process, Nogai explained his affinity for film, as well as his concerns about changes to the medium in general. “We’re living in a world where everything is ‘good enough.’ It’s not good anymore. And for me that means a reduction in quality.” He has a digital Nikon D3x and rents digital backs for his film cameras. “I’m not saying digital photography is bad,” he clarified, “but that it has a place.”
There’s a real concern among photographers who have long been in the industry — even among those who haven’t — that their art is dying. They long to turn off their computer monitors and hold their prints in hand. Nogai’s advice to aspiring photographers is to study, create a vision and tell a story. He and Shulman have been doing so for decades, and their photographs are a testament to that.
Los Angeles magazine, January 2009
His images—from the works of Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler to Albert Frey, Charles and Ray Eames, and the Case Study House architects—have defined Los Angeles since 1936 and exported the city’s mythology to the world.
In 36 exposures, we tell the life story in words and pictures of the charming, brilliant, and cantankerous architectural photographer Julius ShulmanBy Mary Melton
He no longer drives, he lives alone in a canyon, but Julius Shulman is nothing if not available. All someone has to do is call. No agents or assistants or assistants to assistants to fight past. He keeps nine phones: four in his studio, three in his kitchen, two in his bedroom. He favors portables, because they enable him to place the receiver on his walker and wheel it around like a slumbering baby so he can attend to it the moment it stirs. “Julius Shulman,” he answers. The voice is that of an old-timer who’s giving you a tip—eager, high-pitched, gruff. “Can you speak up, please?” he might ask, or, his tone sharpening, “Wait, slow down.”
At 98, he remains one of the world’s most sought-after photographers.
On the other end of the line are graduate students or movie stars wanting to swing by and meet the master, civic leaders inviting him to their box at the Hollywood Bowl, preservation groups seeking his imprimatur to help save a building or a neighborhood, museum curators pushing a new exhibit, architects and designers craving the prestige that only his photographs can lend, magazine editors from Sydney to Stockholm looking to reproduce his images.
Sitting in his studio in Laurel Canyon, he cradles the phone as he consults a full-size desk calendar that he balances in his lap. His notations—capital letters in a shaky hand—cover the pages like so many exploding flashbulbs.
“OK, ten o’clock is good,” he tells a friend of the mayor of Berlin, who would like to drop in with a book to be inscribed. The likely choice is the autobiographical, 299-page Julius Shulman: Architecture and Its Photography, one of 11 books devoted to his work. Admirers also tote vintage prints or magazines—his photographs have appeared on more than 800 covers. If in return for his signature a visitor leaves behind a canister of peanuts or a bottle of single-malt Scotch, well, Shulman couldn’t be more pleased. Unfailingly there are requests to have a photo taken with him, and he complies, enthusiastically if the one asking is an attractive woman.
“Come on, don’t be shy,” he says, pulling everyone in. No matter how excited the visitors are, no one is happier than Shulman. As he is fond of saying, Why not? His work has never been reprinted more often than now. He has never been more revered. He invites guests to sit in one of the studio’s two Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs, which the Danish architect gave to Shulman, and stay awhile. That is, until the phone interrupts. “Excuse me,” he says, picking up the receiver. “Julius Shulman.”
Some photographers are synonymous with the cities they have immortalized. Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, recorded the tabloid allure of New York. Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed Parisians partaking in the beau monde, biking over cobblestones and skipping across puddles. Art Shay documented Chicago neighborhoods with a joyous intimacy. In a city infamous for its absence of street life, it is appropriate that the photographer most associated with Los Angeles captured private spaces, not public ones. From living rooms with plate glass walls and terrazzo floors to outdoor kitchens overlooking kidney-shaped pools, the photography of Julius Shulman beckoned postwar America to Los Angeles: Shed those overcoats and constraints! Sip martinis in space-age domiciles! Create paradise in your own backyard!
For magazines ranging from Sunset and House & Garden to Architectural Record and Dwell, Shulman has documented nearly 8,000 subjects over a 72-year career. His work, whether in black and white or Kodachrome color, isn’t just about composition and light. It is about lifestyle. He was the first architectural photographer to plant men, women, and children like props inside buildings.
From the 1950s through the ’70s, editor Dan MacMasters of the Sunday Los Angeles Times Home Magazine fed Shulman’s images of beautiful people in beautiful Malibu homes directly into the minds of housewives flipping pancakes in Monrovia. Out went Aunt Marge’s wicker rocking chair; in came the Eames lounger. Forty years later those photographs would be rediscovered and repackaged to feed the imagination (or to encourage the lack of imagination) of home owners bidding on midcentury fixer-uppers from Silver Lake to Houston, Palm Springs to Portland. Julius Shulman gave L.A. its history, its best self, and then exported its mythology to the world.
» 03 » Country Boy
He is three years old, riding in an open horse-drawn wagon on a dusty Connecticut road. His mother is at the reins next to him. In the wagon ahead, his father turns back to get their attention. He points to a bluff, and on top of the bluff, a farmhouse. This is the first image Julius Shulman can recollect.
» 04 » The Close-up
On the good days, when Shulman doesn’t have bandages on his face from the skin cancer that anyone who spent decades photographing in the sun invariably bears, he could pass for 78. His blue eyes are narrow and sometimes watery behind oversize aviator glasses. His silver-gray hair crests over his high forehead; his white mustache is full and neatly trimmed. He has a strong square chin and a small mouth with thin lips that purse when he’s annoyed. When he laughs, however, he puts his whole face into it. He throws his head back and opens his mouth so wide it can force his eyes shut.
Were Shulman a character actor, he would be cast as the brewmeister leading a sing-along at Oktoberfest, a raised stein in one hand, a Frau under his wing. His body is shrinking, it is true. His five-feet-ten frame now looks more like five feet three, his arms and legs lack muscle, and when in motion he is fragile. With each passing month his steps cover less territory. But in his white guayabera shirt, his knee-length white shorts held up by red suspenders, he still radiates vitality.
» 05 » Chosen One
When Shulman’s family arrived in Los Angeles in 1920, his parents, Max and Yetta, set up a dry goods shop in Boyle Heights. The East Los Angeles neighborhood was heavily Jewish, but Japanese, Mexican, and Gypsy families also bought pickles from barrels along Brooklyn Avenue. Nearby was Hollenbeck Park, with its lake and lovely bridge, and the imposing redbrick facade of the Breed Street shul, where Julius had his bar mitzvah. Urban life held little interest for him. He and his family had lived on a Connecticut farm until he was ten years old, and an essential part of him remained there. A Boy Scout, he would pack his rucksack with canned beans and catch the Red Car north. Passing the bungalow courts and Craftsman houses of El Sereno and Pasadena, he would head for the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and hike up Mount Wilson. In the evening he’d unroll his blanket and study the shadows and the light.
One of five children, Julius was his mother’s favorite. The hero worship he experiences today—the conviction that he is the most important person in the crowd—is nothing less than a birthright. The other kids shared rooms; he had his own. Julius’s father died of tuberculosis in 1923. The other kids helped their mother run the store and didn’t study beyond high school; Julius enrolled at UCLA. He planned to major in electrical engineering but within two weeks decided that it wasn’t for him and spent the next seven years auditing classes at UCLA and UC Berkeley. It was by some miracle that his siblings didn’t spike his Ovaltine with arsenic.
» 06 » Snapshot
Me: “You were a runner, a swimmer, a skier, a ham radio operator. You’ve backpacked every trail and hiked every peak in Southern California, and you can name them all. You sailed boats. You can identify every bird on your patio, every succulent in your yard. You planted redwoods as seedlings that are now 85 feet high. You became a famous architectural photographer, though you have no training in architecture or photography. Is there anything you’ve tried that you haven’t excelled at?”
» 07 » Significant Moments in L.A. Modernism, Part I
1916: Irving Gill, who had apprenticed for louis sullivan alongside Frank Lloyd Wright, completes the Dodge House in West Hollywood. Stripped of the elements of L.A.’s prevailing Spanish, Craftsman, and mission styles, the building is without awnings, moldings, and eaves but has large casement windows and a flat white exterior. Austere and light filled, it becomes the model for a new type of residential architecture.
1922: Down the street from the Dodge House, Rudolph M. Schindler—the Viennese architect who moved to Los Angeles to oversee construction of Wright’s Barnsdall House in Hollywood—finishes his own home-studio complex, which blurs the boundaries between indoors and out.
1929: A student of Wright’s and well versed in Bauhaus, Schindler’s friend and fellow Austrian Richard Neutra completes a house for Dr. Philip Lovell in the hills of Los Feliz. The multilevel glass-and-steel home earns Neutra a worldwide reputation.
1934: Albert Frey, a Swiss emigrant and a Le Corbusier disciple, builds the first of nearly 200 structures in and around his newly adopted home of Palm Springs, establishing “desert modernism” and making the city one of the great repositories for midcentury architecture.
1937: Greek architect Raphael Soriano wins the Prix de Rome award at the International Architecture Exhibition in Paris for his first residential commission, the Li-petz House in Silver Lake.
1945: John Entenza, editor of the Los Angeles-based magazine Arts & Architecture, initiates the Case Study House program, in which architects Pierre Koenig, Craig Ellwood, Edward Killingsworth, and Don Hensman, among others, design affordable residences across the region; 26 homes are built between 1945 and 1966.
1946: Construction begins on the first of Neutra disciple Gregory Ain’s Park Planned Homes, a modernist development in Altadena; the next year he breaks ground on his tract of 52 homes in Mar Vista.
1949: John Lautner, an alumnus of Frank Lloyd Wright’s school-commune Taliesin, designs Googies coffee shop at Crescent Heights and Sunset boulevards, applying elements of midcentury residential design—glass walls, open kitchen plans, rich woodwork—to a commercial building.
1952: In an article for House and Home magazine, Yale professor Douglas Haskell employs “googie” as a derogatory term to describe an architectural style that subsequent generations will lionize.
1956: Venice-based husband-wife team Charles and Ray Eames start selling their Lounge chair, made of three pieces of molded plywood and designed for the Herman Miller furniture company.
1960: Critic Esther McCoy writes Five California Architects, the first definitive study of Gill and Schindler.
» 08 » Birth of a Notion
For his 23rd birthday Shulman received an accordion-like Kodak Vest Pocket camera. So named because it folded flat and could slip into a large coat pocket, the camera had been a favorite of soldiers in World War I. He brought his new gift on camping trips to Yosemite and the Mojave. He also began to photograph roadways, bridges, and dams, intrigued with the shapes and forms of the city growing around him.
Picture taking he considered just another hobby, not much different from his fascination with ham radio. His sister Shirley was renting a room to a draftsman for Richard Neutra and introduced him to Shulman, who had given up on ever graduating from the University of California. The draftsman invited him to visit Neutra’s latest project, the Kun House, above Laurel Canyon. Should make for some pretty pictures, Shulman thought. He grabbed his camera and tripod and went up for an afternoon.
The four-story house wasn’t complete, but its glass walls and dramatic setting—the building was carved into virgin hillside—were inspiration enough. Shulman took six shots, black and whites, which he developed into eight-by-tens and gave to the draftsman, who shared them with Neutra.
The architect liked what he saw: Unlike most architectural photographers, Shulman had shown how the building fit into the landscape. Neutra offered the 25-year-old two bucks apiece for the pictures. “It wasn’t life changing,” Shulman says, “because I didn’t have a life to change.” Neutra promised to introduce Shulman to the young architects working across the city: Schindler, Soriano, Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris. On that day, March 5, 1936, through no particular effort, Julius Shulman became a photographer.
» 09 » The Great Communicator
Julius Shulman says yes to every invitation to speak, whether it is from an architecture school in Vienna or the Glendale Historical Society. His preferred lectern, however, is his horseshoe-shaped desk. He settles his elbows on the arms of his office chair and clasps his hands as if in prayer. This is the first signal that an address is imminent. He can be inspirational (“You can’t plan life, just let life happen. Look at me, I’m the luckiest guy in the world”), solipsistic (“I got a call yesterday from Cologne. They’ve been avalanched with requests from all over the world for my latest book. They’re going to plan a book signing for me on six continents. One thing keeps building on another!”), and caustic (“That Niemeyer book Rizzoli did was horrible! It’s all washed out. That photographer is an idiot”).
His sentences are as deliberately framed as his images, and visitors would be well advised to know that he demands the same in return. That is because the world’s greatest problem, in Shulman’s estimation, is lack of communication. It leads to wars and failed marriages, to say nothing of lousy photographs. Another word of caution: Never observe that anything is “interesting.” Do so and Shulman will ask you to hold on a moment. He will reach for his Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus and open to a page marked with a Post-it. “ ‘Interesting’ is the worst word in the English language,” he begins. “Do you know how many other ways you can say ‘interesting’ that are so much more interesting than ‘interesting’? Here are a few….” Also, never inquire when he “shot” a photograph or what it is like to “shoot” a subject. “Do you see a gun in my hand?” he will ask, his index finger pointed like a barrel.
He can go on for two, maybe three hours, and no matter how many people are present, the conversation always centers around him. He will eventually tire, blinking slowly between thoughts. His short-term memory has begun to fail, but even he can be startled by the depth of his recall: not just a teacher’s name but the number of the room in which the class was taught; not just the job and who commissioned it but what he ate for lunch while he was on the assignment. If you say something flirty or funny, he will give you a wink and a thumbs-up. Ask a question that confuses him or that he cannot answer, and he will dismiss it and you: “What are you asking me that for? It’s not important.” Lesson: Anything that Julius Shulman can’t remember isn’t worth remembering. Oh, and should you kvetch about your own so-so day, well, good luck. “What are you complaining about?” he snaps, his raspy voice rising an octave. “Listen,” he says, unclasping his hands and holding them in the air in mock surprise. His eyes widen. “The birds are singing outside. The sun is shining. You’re young and healthy. Life is beautiful.
» 10 » Love and War
Within a year of meeting Neutra, Shulman married Emma Romm and started his own photography business. A graduate of Belmont High School, Emma was studying to be a secretary when she and Shulman met at a dance at the Santa Monica Pier. She wore her wavy brunet hair close to her face and appeared matronly, looking more like a girl from the old country than the new. To introduce himself, Shulman crossed the hardwood floor and popped a balloon she was holding. Like Shulman’s family, Emma’s had come from Russia. Whenever he visited her parents’ house on Boylston Street, her uncle Morris would walk into the living room and wind the clock when he felt it was time for the young man to go home. That might explain why the couple had a seven-year courtship. They married at Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel in 1937. In almost all of Shulman’s pictures of her, Emma is looking directly into the camera. You can see how much she loves him in her eyes.
For the next 30 years Emma ran the office, answering the phones, maintaining the files, doing the bookkeeping. Before World War II Shulman had clients coming at him from three directions: magazine editors who needed to fill their pages, architects who needed his images as their calling cards, and contractors who needed him to document the industrial plants they were building for Goodyear, Dow Chemical, and other manufacturers in South Los Angeles. “It wasn’t just smart to have Shulman photograph your work, it was essential,” says Thomas Hines, professor emeritus of architecture and design at UCLA and author of Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture. Late in the war Shulman was enlisted by the army to photograph surgical procedures in military hospitals in the Northwest. Emma kept the firm alive by responding to reprint requests. Notable among them were queries from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which was amassing a contemporary architecture archive. Emma provided MoMA with Shulman’s images of Neutra and Schindler homes. Shulman returned to a postwar boomtown. Houses were dotting the hillsides, filling the valleys, spreading into the desert. Architectural photography was a growth business.
» 11 » Instrumentation
An exhaustive but by no means complete inventory of cameras used by Julius Shulman: a Brownie box; the Kodak Vest Pocket; a Kodak Master View, which was his introduction to the four-by-five format that is still favored by most architectural photographers; a series of Sinars, the “most flexible and successful view camera in history,” he likes to say, the first of which was given to him by its Swiss inventor, Carl Koch; a Horseman view camera, similar to the Sinar; and a Nikon with a 105mm shift lens that the photographer can adjust vertically and horizontally without tilting the camera, minimizing distortions. He doesn’t shoot digital and has no plans to start. He bought an exposure meter in 1936 and tossed it the same year because he didn’t want to lose the ability to read light himself. If you can’t interpret light and the way in which it plays with and defines its subjects, if you can’t understand the subtle and not-so-subtle rhythms of the sun, if you can’t recognize an architect’s intent the minute you walk into a room, no amount of money you spend on a camera will make you a photographer.
» 12 » Ask the Dusk
In 1936, Pittsburgh department store owner Edgar Kaufmann commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build what would be considered the architect’s masterpiece: a vacation home named Fallingwater, perched over a 30-foot waterfall in the woods of southwest Pennsylvania. Ten years later Kaufmann approached Richard Neutra to design an equally ambitious retreat in Palm Springs. At more than $300,000, the budget was exorbitant. The 3,800-square-foot house was shaped like a cross, with walls that alternated between sheet glass and stacked rock. A second-story open-air pavilion looked out on the desert toward the San Jacinto Mountains, and boulders punctuated the lawn. Neutra craved publicity—he saw the attention Wright had received for Fallingwater, including the cover of Time, and was determined that his Kauf-mann House would make him as famous. There was only one photographer to call.
No other architect Shulman worked with was as controlling as Neutra. He would look through the viewfinder and adjust the camera, only to have Shulman move it back when he turned his head. Theirs was a battle of egos, of who was in charge of what and whom. This was never more so than when Shulman photographed the Kaufmann House on a 1947 evening. He set up inside as the sun began to fall behind the mountains, but to capture the fleeting dusk he decided to move outdoors. Neutra wanted him to stay put. Shulman ignored him and placed the tripod on the lawn facing west. As the sky darkened, the house glowed. For the next 45 minutes Shulman ran in and out of the glass house, switching lamps on and off, opening and closing the shutter to burn in the light. At the end of the exposure he asked Mrs. Kaufmann to stretch out on the deck. Who wouldn’t want to imagine themselves there? The photograph, its lights and darks forming a thousand shades of gray, the geometric lines of the house set against the jagged range, would become one of Shulman’s two most reproduced works.
» 13 » Snapshot
Me: “Hi, it’s been a while.”
Shulman: “Where have you been? I’m sitting here with a new friend who brought me a beautiful bottle of tequila.”
Me: “Are you going to break into it?”
Shulman: “I had some wine with my lunch. It’ll have to wait for breakfast tomorrow. Bring some ice cubes.”
» 14 » Hello, Sweetheart
With every woman he meets, Shulman brightens like a toddler first setting eyes on a dancing fountain. He kisses hands. His arms may lack muscle, but they still find their way around waists and shoulders. On one occasion I observed a woman in a tight teal dress scoot next to him for a group photo, saying to him, “Oh no, my end is over here.” “I like that,” said Shulman, squeezing her tighter. Sam Hall Kaplan, the former design critic for the Los Angeles Times, has known Shulman for decades. “I’ve watched women talk to him about composition, and the attention he lavishes on them is amusing and embarrassing at the same time,” Kaplan says. “He wasn’t hitting on them, but there is some basic urge in him that went beyond aesthetics and dropped right down into the crotch.” Once I heard a friend of Shulman’s recount to a crowd that included the dean of USC’s School of Architecture how he’d worked her “ass off” on a hike not that many years ago. “Turn around. Let’s see your ass,” Shulman requested. To his delight, she complied; to her delight, he gave her a spank.
» 15 » Open House
In 1944, julius and emma had a girl named Judy and were anxious to have their own home. They knew what they wanted it to look like (flat roofs, glass walls, cork floors) and where it should be: on a two-acre parcel they had bought high up Laurel Canyon. Shulman asked Schind-ler if he should perhaps form a committee of architects like him and Neutra to help design the house, but Schindler laughed: Neutra on a committee? That wasn’t going to work. Instead Shulman enlisted his good friend Raphael Soriano, who had worked at Neutra’s firm. It was a rare commission and an intimidating one: Build a home for a client whose entire life was devoted to interpreting the work of architects. In 1949, Soriano graded the lot to accommodate a 4,000-square-foot, three-bedroom house with an attached garage and a substantial studio. The framework was steel I beams. Most of the walls were massive sliding glass doors; stucco and corrugated steel, painted the ocher of weathered brick, constituted the rest. Shulman insisted that the porches be screened in to create outdoor rooms, which would allow the family to dine as bobcats dropped by during dessert. The house was roomy yet cozy, the bedrooms small but efficient. In 1950, the family moved into the home, which cost $38,000 to construct. Shulman tore out some of Soriano’s built-in furniture in the living room after a few years and replaced it with swivel chairs. Soriano never forgave him.
After a 1952 mud slide destroyed part of the garage and left him with a fractured leg, Shulman made retaining walls out of stacked concrete. Over 50 years the grounds have grown into a forest of redwood, eucalyptus, jade, and agave, cut by trails that lead to the property’s edge. His neighbors, he likes to point out, are “four widows,” including Gail Zappa and Gena Rowlands.
» 16 » The Lion and Winters
Photographer Dan Winters has flown in from Austin, Texas, to take Shulman’s portrait at his house. He and his two assistants set up in the garage. It’s a hot day, and Shulman is in a foul mood. When Winters asks him to sit, it becomes clear there is room for only one photographer, and despite Winters’s girth—he could pass for a defensive lineman—it’s not going to be him. Winters gets off a test shot or two before Shulman rises. “You don’t have to take more than one,” he says. Winters politely cajoles him to sit again and clicks a few more photographs before Shulman admonishes, “Stop!” He stands up, waving his hands. “That’s enough! Too many pictures!” He retrieves his walker, spins its wheels, and heads for the studio. Winters, who had told me when he arrived how much he admires Shulman, is crestfallen. The session has lasted about as long as it takes to yank a Kleenex from a box.
» 17 » The Constructed View
All photographers fashion their own reality, creating images that are closer to perfection than what they’re ostensibly capturing. Shulman says that it is his job to transcend, transfigure, translate, and transform the building—“the four Ts,” he calls it—for his client. The house is empty? No worries, just cart in some chairs and ask anyone—your wife, your assistant, the writer assigned by the magazine—to plop down and contribute to the “lived-in” illusion. The home is so new it has no plants? Send out for some potted geraniums. The other homes in the development are unfinished? Draft Neutra to hold a eucalyptus branch to blot them out. In 1954, an editor at Good Housekeeping was furious when Shulman told her, only after she had published the pictures, that he had falsified the landscaping at some of Cliff May’s tract houses. The lesson he took: New York editors “were real square about accuracy.”
» 18 » Frenzy of the Renown
In the 1950s, Julius Shulman logged approximately 2,200 assignments, or an average of four jobs a week; in the 1960s, a still staggering 1,600. Not all were glamorous. In one month, for example, he could photograph a Van de Kamp’s coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard, elevators for the Rotary Lift company, an office building for the firm Pereira & Luckman, and a UCLA decorating class for the magazine Living for Young Homemakers. Priding himself on his efficiency, he produced an average of ten negatives per project, which saved time as well as film stock. He was always looking to maximize a job. When photographing a home or a corporate headquarters, he would get in a few shots of the toilets, say, or the boiler rooms, hoping to resell those pictures to the manufacturers (“American Standard? Julius Shulman here”). He made occasional trips to New York, shopping transparencies of the same homes to different publications.
Shulman was no longer on his own. He had an assistant, Leland Y. Lee, and printmakers, a German couple named Julius and Hildegard Frank, working in his darkroom. Trim and fit in a white short-sleeved shirt, black pants, and conservative horn-rimmed glasses, he was the sartorial opposite of the men emerging in Los Angeles’s art scene, like Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman, and Ed Ruscha, in their leather sandals and rolled jeans. The golden child who had drifted through seven years of college without ever earning a diploma had become an unsentimental entrepreneur. Shulman says he couldn’t afford to judge the houses he was photographing because the architects were paying clients. He had to like their work—how else could he do a good job? Lee has a different recollection: He says the architects put up with Shulman’s opinions, no matter how much they stung, because they needed his images as much as he needed their money.
» 19 » Writing the Composition
“Bring out your toys,” Shulman told the two boys and the girl. They obliged him with a Playskool house, some soldiers, a stuffed Donald Duck. Shulman played with the children for a while before stepping out of the field of view. His assignment: the 1955 home of architect Robert Skinner. In the foreground he angled a tricycle’s handlebars and placed the bike halfway into the frame; he reoriented the playhouse and put the duck in a leftward list, like a drunk reeling on his heels. The stuffed animal became the shot’s focal point. The children retreated into their own fantasy worlds: the boys with their toys, one sitting on the concrete deck, the other cross-legged in a rattan chair; the girl in her ankle socks and pinafore, seen through the glass doors as she pushes her doll’s pram. The home (oh yes, the home, got to get that in there) is reduced to a rectangle in the background. The scale is purposely off. The children are smaller than the duck, the house shorter than the tricycle. Taken in the evening, the black-and-white scene is straight out of Hitchcock—at once peaceful and disturbing.
» 20 » Everything Is Illuminated
Four years ago more than 260,000 of Shulman’s negatives, prints, and transparencies made the 13-mile journey from Laurel Canyon to a password-protected, climate-controlled vault a few floors beneath the Getty Research Institute. The Julius Shulman archive is not only the largest in the Getty’s rare-photo collection—it fills two-and-a-half aisles of steel shelves 12 feet high and 20 feet long—but its images are the institute’s most requested.
Wim de Wit, head of the institute’s Department of Architecture and Design, pulls a legal-size, acid-free Hollinger box off the shelves. The box contains images from the Case Study House program. De Wit removes a Shulman photograph of a living room designed by Ed Killingsworth, circa 1962. “The angles bring movement into the photo,” he says, “and give you the opportunity to bring in light from this other source.” De Wit points to rays streaming through a screened glass door. “He understood the light so well. He knew exactly where the sun was at any time of day. There’s something about the softness of light that immediately says this is a Julius print. It was not a click-click-click-and-you-work-it-out-in-the-darkroom approach. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. A few years ago, after we opened the Getty Villa, he photographed it. It’s the first time I really saw him in action. The architects were totally amazed. All the things that they wanted people to see, the theatrical experience, he pointed them out immediately.
“He has such a love affair with the city,” says De Wit. “He’ll go back over and over again to photograph something that is meaningful to him.” Shulman’s 1960s portfolio documenting the downtown Department of Water and Power building, designed by A.C. Martin and Associates, is among the curator’s favorites. “That pond in front of it? You look out and you have no idea what a mess Bunker Hill is at that time. It looks absolutely beautiful, like you are somewhere in Versailles.”
» 21 » Snapshot
Me: “Other people walk into a room and don’t know how to look at it, how to see the best angles. Why do homes talk so loudly to you?”
Shulman: “They don’t. I talk to the homes.”
» 22 » Full Exposure
Like Robert Doisneau’s 1950 photograph of a young French couple kissing in front of the Hôtel de Ville, the image has become an emblem of its time and place: two young women in white party dresses seated in a glass-walled living room high on a cliff, Los Angeles a nighttime grid of twinkling lights benign and mysterious beneath them. The diagonals pulse with energy: the couch, the steel-beamed roof, the foundation itself, all poised to take flight. The tableau is cinematic. The women in the floodlit room could be two actors, the darkness that engulfs them a theater in which we sit, voyeurs to their evening, eavesdroppers on their conversation. It was Case Study House No. 22 in the Hollywood Hills, also known as the Stahl House. At the moment Julius Shulman took the photo, it was just job No. 2980 in his logbook. Without realizing it, on May 9, 1960, Shulman defined the city’s mythic grandeur—all of its vaunted promise for a better tomorrow—in a seven-minute exposure.
The photograph first appeared in Arts & Architecture, which along with the home’s architect, Pierre Koenig, had hired Shulman. A month later it was the cover of the Sunday pictorial section of the Los Angeles Examiner. Shulman’s most reprinted image ever since, it also led to hard feelings between the photographer and the architect. While it established Koenig’s rep-utation, he also felt shortchanged. The building’s likeness had become more famous than the building itself. The world, he feared, had forgotten his contribution. Speaking just before he died in 2004, Koenig said he hoped Shulman realized that “architects have to build the buildings before he can photograph them.”
» 23 » Let the Games Begin
Of the 21 students in Mr. Gertner’s journalism class at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, all are Latino and three are asleep. It’s the period after lunch, the toughest for anyone to command, let alone an alumnus pushing 100. “You know that I’m a photographer,” Shulman tells the students, “and I believe that I’m a good one.” He is here to critique their pictures. “Nice lighting,” he says. “This one is too busy,” he comments about another. “You want to stop a person from turning the page.” His words are, one would hope, encouraging, given that the only formal education he received in photography was as a junior on this campus.
In May 1927, his photography teacher asked the students to cover a school track meet at the L.A. Coliseum. Shulman, armed with his family’s Brownie box, saw that his classmates were set up to capture the hurdlers as they crossed the finish line. With his slow shutter speed he knew that this would result in a blur. Instead he secured a spot above the tunnel from which the athletes would shoot out. His photograph would encompass the full length of the lane and also include spectators in the stands and a judge milling in the foreground. It was an elegant, unexpected composition. He captured the boys the moment after they crossed the first hurdle. He received an A.
Eighty years later Shulman poses for pictures with two pretty students who’ve whipped out a digital camera. The girls place a gift atop his head: a bright red-and-yellow Roosevelt Riders knit beanie with a pom-pom. He puts his arms around them. The photography editor of the school paper says she will post the picture on MySpace. Shulman has no idea what that is, but no matter. He is the happiest kid in class.
» 24 » Mistaken Identity
The first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, Paul R. Williams designed more than 2,000 buildings in the Los Angeles area over 50 years, including the First A.M.E. Church, Perino’s, and Saks Fifth Avenue. The best-known portrait of Williams is by Shulman. The architect is standing in front of the Theme Building, the four-legged “spider” that greets visitors on their arrival at LAX. Problem is, though Williams contributed to the airport’s expansion, he didn’t design its signature structure. The United States Information Agency had assigned Shulman to photograph Williams, and Shulman thought the Theme Building provided a striking backdrop. Look up Williams anywhere, and he is credited as the building’s architect. The picture is so iconic—futuristic structure, brooding clouds, handsome subject. Who wouldn’t conclude that Williams was responsible?
» 25 » Significant Moments in L.A. Modernism, Part II
1965: A Guide to Architecture in South- ern California, by David Gebhard and Robert Winter, is published. It is the first major attempt to catalog L.A.’s landmarks.
1970: The demolition of Irving Gill’s Dodge House galvanizes L.A.’s preservation movement.
1971: British academic Reyner Banham writes Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, a pithy celebration of the city’s architectural wealth.
1982: Thomas Hines publishes his study on Neutra and cocurates “The Architecture of Richard Neutra: From International Style to California Modern” at the Museum of Modern Art.
1984: After L.A. loses several beloved structures (such as Ship’s Westwood and Tiny Naylor’s), the Los Angeles Conservancy forms a Fifties Task Force, later to be known as the Modern Committee, or ModCom, to protect significant postwar theaters, tract developments, and coffee shops.
1986: Architecture critic Alan Hess publishes Googie: Fifties Coffee Shop Architecture.
1988: The first “Los Angeles Modernism Show & Sale” is held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium; future hosts of gala openings include Johnny Depp and Will Ferrell.
1989: The Museum of Contemporary Art presents the exhibit “Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses,” which features a full-scale model of Case Study House No. 22.
1990: The L.A. Conservancy sponsors a Case Study House tour.
1992: Los Angeles Modern Auctions holds its inaugural sale; a red Eero Saarinen Womb chair with ottoman sells for $1,870. Fifty-one auctions follow, and the odds of ever again stumbling on something really cool at a thrift shop plummet.
1993: The 1949 Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, by architect Wayne McAllister, is designated a California State Point of Historic Interest.
1998: Designer Tom Ford begins refurbishing a dilapidated Neutra in Bel-Air and credits the house with influencing the new look of Gucci stores.
» 26 » Postmodern Stress Disorder
As shag carpets replaced sisal rugs and macramé hangings supplanted George Nelson Bubble lamps, modernism had by the 1970s faded from fashion. Works by Neutra and Schindler were in disrepair, demolished, or disregarded. Barry Manilow owned the run-down Kaufmann House and couldn’t find a buyer. Soriano had gone more than a decade without building anything and moved to a houseboat on San Francisco Bay. The two poles of ’50s design—the kitsch of tiki bars and the cool austerity of glass and steel—were equally passé.
In 1973, Emma died of a heart attack while vacationing with her husband in Switzerland. Two years later Shulman married a vivacious woman named Olga Heller, whom friends had introduced to him. In his sixties, he continued to work, but his career was slowing down. His logbook indicates 1,100 jobs through the 1970s but about half that many in the next decade. He also liked less and less of what he was photographing. A concrete convention center in El Paso, a glass-topped galleria in Denver—he considered postmodernism “horrendous.” He was now at retirement age, and a younger generation of L.A. architectural photographers, like Grant Mudford and Tim Street-Porter, was moving into his territory. Still, he hated the idea of retiring—he has always equated it with dying—and he didn’t shut down the studio until 1996. There were workshops to teach, more books to produce. To promote the 1987 publication of Sam Hall Kaplan’s LA Lost & Found, a paean to the city’s great buildings filled with Shulman photographs, the two men hosted a traveling slide show that devolved into a sideshow. “He threw in pictures of Olga’s grandchildren in Florida, hot dogs, whatever he liked,” says Kaplan. “He’d step all over my lines. He was exasperating, but I enjoyed it—to a point.”
» 27 » But Is It Art?
When Craig Krull opened a gallery on Melrose Avenue in 1991, he decided its inaugural exhibit should be “Photographing L.A. Architecture,” with contributions from 25 photographers. He figured he would give Shulman a call. At Cal State Long Beach he had studied Shulman’s work in a class about California culture. Krull knew art school friends who had driven up to Laurel Canyon to buy prints, paying maybe $35 if it was a black and white, $50 or $60 if it was in color.
“When I first went to see him and asked to display his work,” says Krull, “he thought I meant his ‘artwork,’ the pictures he took for pleasure on vacation that weren’t his job. I had to explain to him that ‘I’m sure your pictures of Hawaii and sunsets are beautiful, but they’re not what I’m talking about.’ ” Shulman had exhibited in community centers and architects’ offices. But no one, including himself, had ever classified his work as fine art. He likes to tell the story of how he would lend his photographs to group shows. One day when filling out a loan form, he wrote down the value of his prints as $35. He looked over at the guy next to him, who had written down $1,000, and asked himself, Why in the hell is his worth $1,000 and mine only $35?
“We kind of put an end to that,” says Krull, who after that first exhibit signed on as Shulman’s exclusive gallery and agent. When Krull moved to Bergamot Station in Santa Monica three years later, “Julius Shulman: Vintage Photographs of Los Angeles Architecture” was the premiere exhibit. “Opening night, it took 15 minutes to walk from the front of the gallery to the back,” says Krull. “I’ve never seen so many people.” Shulman, then 83 years old, pulled up in his Volvo and was the first to sign the gallery’s guest book. The early to mid-’90s were among the worst years in L.A.’s history—the riots, the Northridge earthquake, the Simpson trial—and the optimism of Shulman’s photography spoke to a generation looking to the past for a brighter future. His images weren’t ironic; they weren’t cynical. Instead they portrayed an ideal, a lifestyle worth recapturing. In 1994, a signed vintage print of Case Study House No. 22 could fetch around $1,200; today it would go for $50,000 to $75,000.
» 28 » Cropping the Image
Spend enough time with Shulman and you’ll begin to wonder if he hasn’t fashioned an internal reality as carefully composed and unsullied as his photos. When I broach a topic he doesn’t want to discuss—the loss of Emma, say—he responds just as he does when there is something he can’t recall: “It’s not important now.” What about the frustrations that must come with losing his mobility? He brushes it aside. “He never tells you he has a problem—everything is always ‘incredible,’ ” says Eric Bricker, who recently completed a documentary called Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. “He only lets certain things in. If he doesn’t like someone, I think he just doesn’t talk to him, doesn’t see him. It lends itself to a rich life, cultivating this garden of wanted guests. On the flip side, sometimes it’s hard to get to the real Julius.”
» 29 » The Opinion Section
Olga died in 1999, and Shulman has lived alone ever since. His daughter, Judy, owned a folk art store in Brentwood throughout the 1970s before moving to Santa Barbara nearly 20 years ago. She comes down every weekend to check on him. She handles the billings just as her mother did, prepares meals that he can later reheat, and posts daily menus with cooking instructions beneath a magnet on the refrigerator. Inevitably the two squabble. Judy says she is a wreck after a day with him, no matter how deeply she cares about him. Not until this past fall was she able to persuade her father to have someone take him to appointments or change lightbulbs. On a recent trip to the doctor Judy mentioned that perhaps they should ask about his short-term memory problems. “My short-term memory isn’t going,” Shulman insisted. “I just dismiss things. I have to dismiss things, otherwise I get too cluttered.”
Several nights a week someone escorts him to the next dinner party, book signing, or lecture series. If Shulman isn’t the guest of honor, he is the moment he walks in the door. He assumes he will have an audience, and he’s always right. If an opportunity presents itself—and if it doesn’t, he will force it to—he will make a speech, even if it’s to the host’s dismay. “If he’s not critical,” Judy says, “then he’s not making a statement.” On a recent evening at the A+D: Architecture and Design Museum, Shulman had been invited to celebrate the publication of Dream Homes: Los Angeles, for which he wrote the foreword. Admirers stopped by. “This is the greatest architectural photographer in the world,” one man exclaimed to a friend, to which Shulman responded, “Come on, come on! More!”
Throughout the event something had been gnawing at him—he had snapped at the smallest of annoyances—and he asked to say a few words. The sea parted as he shuffled toward the front of the room. The exhibit on display happened to be devoted to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Here we are for something called Dream Homes,” Shulman began, “but no one gives a damn for New Orleans and the thousands of people in these big pictures showing the disaster.”
An architect in the audience sighed, “Oh boy.”
“What good is a dream house if you haven’t got a dream?” Shulman asked. “Let’s do the best we can to make lives better for more people.”
When he finished, there was an embarrassed silence, followed by the obligatory applause. It was classic Shulman. Challenge expectations. Make the biggest statement. Have the final word
» 30 » Publisher’s Sweepstakes
A $200, ten-pound coffee-table history of the Case Study House program, limited-edition Shulman prints at $4,500 a pop, Shulman wall calendars, Shulman desk calendars. German publisher Benedikt Tasch-en made his name with soft- and hard-core porn books (recent titles include Vanessa del Rio: Fifty Years of Slightly Slutty Behavior and The Big Penis Book) before emerging in the mid-1990s as a competitor to Rizzoli and Abrams. For that he can largely thank Julius Shulman. Lean and tan, with closely cropped receding gray hair, the 47-year-old Taschen is dressed this afternoon in a characteristically unbuttoned button-down shirt that is almost as formfitting as his jeans. He paces the periphery of Shulman’s studio in his supple brown loafers. He periodically stops to perform the Taschen snoop, lifting piles of letters here, magazine clips there, looking for another vein to tap.
Outside on the brick patio, writer and cinematographer Sven Kirsten, whose coffee-table contributions to the Taschen cat-alog include The Book of Tiki and Tiki Modern, is setting up a video camera. The publisher wants to immortalize Shulman’s first impressions of their latest project: a three-volume, 1,008-page update of Modernism Rediscovered. Elegantly designed, it contains 400 previously unpublished works culled by Taschen himself.
In 1994, while browsing one of his own books, Architecture in the 20th Century, Taschen first learned of Shulman. When he called the photographer, he discovered that Shulman was working on an autobiographical essay and didn’t have a publisher. The essay would turn into Julius Shulman: Architecture and Its Photography. The book was substantial and flashy, giving big-picture treatment to photos from every period of his career. But it wasn’t until 2000, when the first edition of Modernism Rediscovered came out, that the world saw the other Shulman—the lesser-known color images of churches in Simi Valley or nurses’ dormitories in Oklahoma. Both books went into additional printings, and Taschen titles on Neutra, Schindler, Lautner, and Koenig—all packed with Shulman photos—soon followed.
The unveiling at Shulman’s house of the expanded edition of Modernism Rediscovered is no less staged than one of Shulman’s shots. Videotape rolling, Taschen kisses the photographer’s cheeks and tells him, “I thought we have to capture this magic moment.” Seated on a patio chair, Shulman opens a volume, and the sound bites pour out: “I’ve said this to Benedikt many times, ‘I don’t recognize my own photographs!’ ” “Why, I’m more famous than ever!” “I always had good weather.” “These are reproduced in a way I never saw before.” “I can’t believe this.” “I’m a little older now but never more happy with my work.” “No one has done this ever before. You are deserving as a publisher of receiving a Pulitzer Prize.” “The Neutra book is good, the Case Study book is good, but the Julius Shulman book is the best!”
Taschen is more than Shulman’s publisher. He buys him new walkers, hires women to spill out of giant martini glasses for his birthdays, and throws dinner parties for him. In 1997, Taschen purchased Lautner’s Chemosphere House, the eight-sided flying saucer that Shulman photographed, and it is where he stays when not in Miami or Cologne. Taschen tells me that if Shulman had not photographed the buildings featured in his books, many of which have been razed, the world would never have known them. Despite this, Taschen says, “Julius is not too nostalgic.”
» 31 » Developing the Negatives
Me: “Hi, I was hoping to talk to you about Julius Shulman—”
Interviewee One: “Why? Julius does a fine job talking about himself.”
Me: “Hi, I’ve been talking with Julius Shulman—”
Interviewee Two: “Really? Most writers never get a chance to talk with Julius around
Me: “Hi, I know you were a contemporary of Shulman’s, and I’d love to—”
Interviewee Three: “I’ve had enough of him. Every day I get one of these calls. He thinks he’s God’s gift to photography. Here’s what you can say: ‘He’s a highly confident schlock photographer.’ Wait, I withdraw my quote.”
» 32 » Happy Birthday to Me
Shulman doesn’t so much celebrate a birthday as a birth month. He can easily attend more than a dozen parties. Cakes are delivered to him in the shape of a Nikon or adorned with reproductions of his pictures. He sings along to “Happy Birthday,” substituting “you” with “me” and pointing to himself.
This year, as he customarily does, he spent his actual birthday—he was born on “10/10/10,” as he loves to say—at a sit-down dinner at the home of Rose and Ken Nielsen. Nearly 5,000 square feet and abutting a country club in La Cañada, the house is decorated with Shulman’s photographs. The first time he walked into their living room he told the Nielsens: “This is a monstrosity! Who could design such an ugly house?” The Nielsens laugh when they tell this story. “Julius,” says Rose, “is such a character.”
Rose is just over 60, toned and glowing and as headstrong as Shulman. She can tell him to go change a rumpled shirt or argue with him about the best route to take across town. Rose calls Shulman each morning to make sure he has awoken and each night to see that he made it through the day. They met ten years ago when he spoke at Woodbury University, where Ken is president. Founded in 1884 as a downtown business college and now in the foothills of Burbank, Woodbury has schools of architecture, business, media, culture, and design. Emma had taken secretarial classes at Woodbury in the 1930s, and Shulman taught some workshops there in the ’70s. When Rose learned of this history, her eyes “lit up,” says Ken, and she immediately asked Shulman to be involved at Woodbury.
“He liked the smallness of the school,” says Rose, who is senior director of development for the School of Architecture. She is also the driving force behind its new Julius Shulman Institute, endowed with a $1 million check that Shulman signed shortly after the Getty bought his archive. Following the acquisition, Rose spent two-and-a-half years helping Shulman catalog the 70,000 slides left behind—many of them of architecture, but also nature studies and personal photographs of his travels. “The Getty did want all his slides,” says Rose, “but he wasn’t quite ready to let them go.”
» 33 » Midcentury Madness
Even when the world’s most famous couple weren’t yet an official couple, their union was imagined through the visual language of Julius Shulman. In a 58-page portfolio for the July 2005 issue of W magazine, photographer Steven Klein placed Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Shulman-inspired tableaux. One photo, for example, restaged the couple in Shulman’s shot of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 21.
Call it midcentury madness. In the last decade an entire industry has blown up to cater to those who want to remake their homes into something resembling a Shulman photograph. There are Web sites (Modern Capital: “DC’s Mid-Century Modern Resource” and Red Stick Modern: “Exploring Mid-Century Modern Architecture in Baton Rouge”), magazines (Dwell, Domino, and Atomic Ranch), and chain stores (West Elm and Design Within Reach). In Los Angeles alone, at least two dozen shops specialize in vintage furniture from the era. Artists like Shag and showmen like Charles Phoenix have become hugely successful evoking cocktails and Sinatra. It has become the defining style of any hip hotel, the predominant aesthetic for fashion spreads. Even on television, midcentury enthusiasts have a painstakingly rendered homage to the era in Mad Men
Like all trends, this one has engendered a backlash. A tenet of the glass-and-steel revolution was accessibility—beautiful homes that would be efficient and affordable, with building techniques that could be easily applied. Now midcentury homes have become Design Out of Reach, and the architects are subjects of coffee-table books and celebrity-like adoration. Worshipers of Shulman’s ideal strive for such orthodoxy that many find it oppressive. Fifteen years after its landmark Case Study houses exhibit, MOCA hosted a show in 2004 that literally trashed the program. Artist Sam Durant defaced foam core and Plexiglas models of Case Study houses with graffiti and tiny bullet holes in the windows.
» 34 » Weeds in the Garden
Shulman has allowed the city’s leading preservation group, the Los Angeles Conservancy, to use his photographs for advocacy since its inception 30 years ago. “Our debt to him is huge,” says executive director Linda Dishman. It was no surprise then that Shulman was a panelist at the conservancy’s 2005 annual meeting, held in the Cinerama Dome. He sat alongside Ben Stiller, a new board member, who had just coedited a photography book called Looking at Los Angeles, a compilation of some 200 photos, including many of Shulman’s, that emphasized the mundane as much as the lyrical. Proceeds from the book’s sales were going to the conservancy. Shulman was asked a question, the substance of which no one recalls, to which he answered, “This book is crud.” Looking at Los Angeles, he declared, didn’t look like Los Angeles. “What is wrong with these people?” he asked. “That’s your favorite picture?” He pointed to an image of three scuffed red steps, which he pronounced boring: “Yech, that’s crap.” When Stiller was later asked by someone in the audience to name his favorite photographer, he replied, “Until today it was Julius Shulman.”
» 35 » The Burden of Proof
At 90, Shulman came out of retirement. All those midcentury houses being renovated and coming on the market—they needed a photographer again. Shulman, though, could no longer do it on his own. What he required was a collaborator, not an assistant. For a few years he worked with David Glomb, shooting José Rafael Moneo’s new cathedral downtown and the homes of Hollywood executives like stu-dio head Brad Grey. Their working relationship was strained. In 1999, a friend of Shulman’s suggested he meet a photographer from Bremen, Germany, named Juergen Nogai. They hit it off—Nogai is as patient with Shulman as a good parent must be with an insolent teen—and have worked on more than 125 jobs together, from Disney Hall to the renovated Griffith Observatory. They average four assignments a month. “Once we determine the composition, he can handle it,” says Shulman. “Every photo is beautiful. I can say that after 70 years, I’m still turning them out.”
One afternoon they photographed some pieces for Peter Schifando. The interior decorator for Nancy Reagan, among other clients, Schifando has the license to reproduce Hollywood designer Billy Haines’s furniture. Seated on his walker, with his arms propped high across the handle of his wood cane like a barrister at Old Bailey, Shulman was holding forth on one of those works, a circular glass table with jutting wood legs. He wore a deep blue shirt with multicolored stripes, battleship gray slacks held up by suspenders decorated with the visage of Marilyn Monroe, thin net socks, and black comfort shoes fastened with Velcro.
“This is the secret of photography,” he began. “Here’s a round table. The top is beautiful glass, but everyone knows the nature of glass. How many know the cross legs and notice the structure? What are you looking at, and why? If we photograph only the top, we’re marketing the glass, not the table—those lines, that whoosh!”
Four chairs were symmetrically set around the table; a globe was indifferently placed in the background. It was a conventional arrangement, and Shulman did not like the Polaroid test shot that Nogai showed him. “We need perspective. Four chairs around the table—it’s dull,” he said. “I want to try something.” Supporting himself on his cane, he rose and closed his right eye to study the composition. “Let’s shift the globe in front of the table,” said Shulman, an index finger pointing in different directions, “and move one of the chairs out, the other three closer together behind the table.” Schifando and his colleagues did as told. Shulman’s features relaxed, and he sat again. “OK, let’s bring in some more light in the foreground,” he said to Nogai, who moved the lamps. The camera’s sight line traveled between the globe, which gained a presence, and the backside of the chair in the foreground. The table’s legs were clearly visible through the glass. “It’s alive now,” said Shulman, rising again to peer into the viewfinder. Nogai took another Polaroid. Shulman, seated, held it up, and all crowded around to coo over the newborn. “Hey, maestro,” Shulman said to Nogai. “It proves my point that I’m always right.”
» 36 » Dark Rooms
Shulman’s desk is bedlam: piles of proof sheets and boxed chocolates, trinkets and tchotchkes, photos of himself, Judy, and random girls, stickers with their edges curling up that promote TreePeople and the National Audubon Society, ribbons and medallions, two old radios, a mug adorned with a Sandra Boynton cartoon cat and the phrase “Everyone’s entitled to my opinion.” It is here that Shulman spends most of his waking hours. After his morning Cream of Wheat, he makes his way down the front steps to the studio, undoes the padlock, and starts his day. Briiing!
In the front room are two desks—one for Shulman, one for Judy. A worn Eames lounger sits catty-corner from the Jacobsen Egg chairs. Two tables are stacked high with magazine clippings and correspondence. Tool-ing around the room with his walker, affixed with a decal bearing a Porsche insignia (“the Mercedes” is inside the house), Shulman has little difficulty putting his finger on anything. Blowups of his book covers and a letter of encouragement from Frank Lloyd Wright lean against the walls. The studio feels awash with natural light, no matter the weather.
For all the bustle of the front room, the rear is lifeless. This was home to Shulman’s darkroom and, until 2005, much of his archive. The sinks from which his classic images first emerged are long gone. “When the archive was driven away,” says Judy, “that was the most emotional I’ve ever seen him.” I ask him about that day, and he answers by retrieving a letter from Richard Neutra. In it he writes, “Julius Shulman and surely his work will survive me. Films are stronger, and good glossy prints are easier shipped than brute concrete and stainless steel—or even ideas.”
Shulman wonders why the architect, with whom he had fought early on but corresponded with in later years, was so tightly wound. “Neutra worked himself to death,” he says. “What did he have to worry about?” He thinks the famously exacting Neutra didn’t have the ability to take the approach to life that Shulman does: Never hurry, but never come to a halt. We sift through more letters and run across another from Neutra, dated March 18, 1969, a year before the architect would die of a heart attack while on a lecture tour in Germany. “I wish an old architect could keep going as long as a photographer,” Neutra writes, “but our dark rooms are darker than your dark rooms.”
Evening comes, and it’s time to pop one of Judy’s premade meals into the toaster oven. Shulman heads slowly out the heavy glass door. Before sliding it shut, he turns back to glance into his studio. “OK, see you tomorrow,” he says and blows it a kiss good night.
Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, <strong>VISUAL ACOUSTICS</strong> celebrates the life and career of Julius Shulman, the world’s greatest architectural photographer, whose images brought modern architecture to the American mainstream.
Shulman, who passed away this year, captured the work of nearly every modern and progressive architect since the 1930s including Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Frank Gehry.
His images epitomized the singular beauty of Southern California’s modernist movement and brought its iconic structures to the attention of the general public.
This unique film is both a testament to the evolution of modern architecture and a joyful portrait of the magnetic, whip-smart gentleman who chronicled it with his unforgettable images.
VISUAL ACOUSTICS won the Mercedes-Benz Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Austin Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Lone Star International Film Festival and Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Filmmaking at the Newport Beach Film Festival.
Obiturary in the Los Angeles Times
By Claudia Luther / July 17, 2009
Julius Shulman dies at 98; celebrated photographer of modernist architecture
His mission was to use his photography to build the reputation of architects who were bringing innovative design to the West. His clients included Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolf M. Schindler
“He has a sense of visual bravura of composition,” wrote the late Robert Sobieszek, photography curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “so that he can take a rather mundane house and make it look exciting, and take a spectacular house and make it look triply spectacular.”
Shulman had “a profound effect on the writing and teaching of architectural history and understanding architecture, especially Southern California modernism,” Thomas Hines, UCLA professor emeritus of architecture and urban design, once said.
And Newsweek magazine’s Cathleen McGuigan wrote that some of Shulman’s photographs of modern glass houses in Palm Springs and Los Angeles “are so redolent of the era in which they were built you can practically hear the Sinatra tunes wafting in the air and the ice clinking in the cocktail glasses.”
After the Depression, Shulman’s studio was one of three in the United States to which Arts & Architecture, Architectural Forum and other magazines turned to document the exciting new work being done in architecture.
Shulman’s 1960 photograph of Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22 — a glass-walled, cantilevered structure hovering above the lights of Los Angeles, became one of the most famous architectural pictures ever taken in the United States. It was, as architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times, “one of those singular images that sum up an entire city at a moment in time.”
But Shulman’s work went well beyond merely taking beautiful pictures of houses and buildings. His mission was to use his photography to build the reputation of the architects who were bringing innovative design to the West. Indeed, his photographs were, by and large, all that most people would ever see of noted architects’ works, many of which were later destroyed.
Neutra, whose association with Shulman lasted 34 years until the architect’s death in 1970, acknowledged this.
“Film [is] stronger, and good glossy prints are easier [to] ship than brute concrete, stainless steel or even ideas,” Neutra said.
Shulman was born Oct. 10, 1910, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. The family moved to a farm in Connecticut, where Shulman first developed a love of nature that, he said, awakened him to light and shadow and influenced his life’s course.
When Julius was 10, his father moved the family to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at that time was predominantly Jewish, and opened the New York Dry Goods Store. His father died of tuberculosis in 1923, leaving Julius’ mother to run the business and raise five children.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School — where he took what would be his only course in photography — Shulman spent seven years as what he called an “academic drifter,” auditing geology, philosophy and other courses at UCLA and UC Berkeley. He returned to Los Angeles without a degree and still unsure what he wanted to do.
He was by then, however, earning rent money from pictures he took at Berkeley with an Eastman box camera. And one photograph of the 6th Street Bridge over the L.A. River had won first prize in a national magazine competition.
It was a chance meeting with Neutra in March 1936 — two weeks after Shulman left Berkeley — that would open up the possibility of becoming an architectural photographer. A man who was renting a room from Shulman’s sister, and who was working as a draftsman for Neutra, invited Shulman along one day to see Neutra’s Kun house, which was under construction near Fairfax Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.
As was his habit by then, Shulman took along a vest-pocket camera that was equipped with a bellows that unfolded.
“I had never seen a modern house before,” Shulman said. It “intrigued me with its strange forms — beyond any previous identity of a house in my experience.”
Shulman developed a few of the pictures and sent them to the draftsman, who showed them to Neutra. The architect, then in his mid-40s, sent for young Shulman and ordered up more prints.
With Neutra’s invitation to photograph other projects, Shulman was suddenly a professional architecture photographer.
“He had an eye for different angles,” Neutra’s son, Dion, told The Times in 2003. “My dad immediately saw that and mentored him into the field.”
Shulman throughout his life would refer to this turn in the road as “fate” or “karma.”
“I was lucky to be doing the right thing at the right place at the right time,” he told The Times in 1994. “So any time anybody wanted a photograph of a modern house, Uncle Julius provided the picture.”
Through Neutra, Shulman met other prominent architects of the time, including Schindler and Soriano, from whom he would learn his craft. Schindler, for example, taught Shulman about lighting photographs when he asked him, “Why on your interiors is the lighting equal in intensity on adjacent walls?”
“What a lesson!” Shulman said. “In my use of floodlights it had not occurred to me that illumination need not be uniform.”
His sense of light became instinctual; he stopped working with a light meter a year after he started taking photos for Neutra.
Shulman spent two years in the Army during World War II taking photographs — mostly of surgical procedures — before returning to his business in 1945 to find himself in even greater demand.
It was during the postwar housing boom that John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture magazine launched its Case Study housing program, hoping to promote good quality, low-cost housing in the modernist idiom.
Of the two dozen Case Study homes designed by such architects as Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, A. Quincy Jones, Koenig, Neutra and Soriano, Shulman took photographs of 18.
But the image that would secure Shulman’s reputation was of Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, a glass and steel-frame home built for Carlotta and Buck Stahl in the Hollywood Hills. Shulman shot the photo as the sun was setting May 9, 1960.
The black-and-white photograph is taken from outside the cantilevered house, shooting through glass walls to the grid of sparkling city lights below. In the living room are two pretty women dressed for a special night out but, for the moment, sitting quietly and chatting. The strong horizontal pattern of the ceiling over their heads extends outside to the house’s overhang.
The effect, though Hollywood gorgeous, is casual, a snapshot of the good life.
But, as with all of Shulman’s work, nothing about taking this photograph was casual.
“He was doing a rush job of shooting the house the day before it was to have its debut,” said Philip Ethington, a USC professor of history who interviewed Shulman extensively for an oral history. “He turned around and saw this scene.”
To capture the image in the camera, however, Shulman had to essentially take two photographs at once — one of the vista below, which required a time exposure, and one of the house, which required a flash.
Working quickly and without a light meter, Shulman shot a 7½-minute exposure of the city lights with his 4-by-5 camera.
“Then, when I felt I had given enough time for the exposure, and I wanted to flash the interior, I called to the girls,” Shulman told Taina Rikala De Noriega for the Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution. “I said, ‘Girls, sit up now and look pleasant. Look toward each other as if you’re talking and hold still for just a second and the flash will go off.’ I pressed the release. All this time the shutter was open and the flash illuminated the interior.
The result is, as UCLA’s Hines said, a photograph that is both time-specific and timeless. With its scenic setting, romantic sensibility and strong perspective, it seems to capture the best of modernism.
“Modernism really was about a belief in a promising future, a belief that our problems could be solved easily by progress,” said Craig Krull, whose gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica represents Shulman’s work. Krull said he saw the uplifting diagonal of Shulman’s photograph, much like the fins on 1950s cars, as having an “optimistic flair.”
Others, including Ethington, have seen something darker.
While conceding that the photo is both “comfortable and thrilling,” he said it also has a “portentous feel of white, well-to-do women encased in a glass box above a dark and teeming city.”
Shulman knew he had taken a great picture, but he could not have known how enduring it would be. First published on the cover of the Sunday Pictorial section of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner two months after it was taken, it would make architectural stars of both Shulman and Koenig. It has been reproduced countless times in books, magazines and newspapers.
“And suddenly Pierre Koenig becomes a hero, based on one picture,” Shulman said of the photo he called “one of my masterpieces.”
In time, the scene-stealing fame that came to Shulman with the picture grew to rankle the architect, who later became a professor at USC’s School of Architecture and who died in April 2003.
“It’s not just a photograph, it’s the house too,” said Koenig, who said he very consciously designed the house so its horizontal lines would echo the city’s grid below.
Shulman’s photographs were not without controversy. Some believed he made the structures look too beautiful.
He rearranged furniture to suit his perspective, brought in props and posed models in the frame. Sometimes he used filters or infrared film to make his photos look more dramatic and full of contrast.
He also would shoot through cut branches or pots of nursery plants to give the impression that a newly completed home was more fully landscaped.
Shulman was unapologetic about these tactics, saying he wasn’t just taking pictures, he was “selling modernism.”
“I sell architecture better and more directly and more vividly than the architect does,” he said.
In his later years, the value of Shulman’s photographs increased dramatically. Photos that in the past he had sold for $35 or $50 apiece began fetching, on the art market, $2,000 to $20,000 each.
Always generous with what he knew about his profession, Shulman for decades conducted seminars in photography at USC, UCLA and other universities. He was awarded the American Institute of Architecture’s Gold Medal for architectural photography in 1969.
Shulman’s home in the Hollywood Hills, designed by Soriano, was designated a monument by the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission in 1987 as the only remaining unaltered steel-frame structure by the architect.
Though his shooting slowed down in his later years, Shulman continued taking assignments, working with his collaborator, Juergen Nogai, into his late 90s.
In 2005, the Getty Center announced that it had acquired Shulman’s archive of 260,000 negatives, prints and transparencies.
Shulman’s first wife, Emma, died in 1973, and his second, Olga, died in 1999.
He is survived by his daughter and a grandson, Timothy, both of Santa Barbara.