A Julius Shulman photo of a Mobil gas station in Anaheim, 1956.(© J. Paul Getty Trust, Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis by Sam Lubell and Douglas Woods, Rizzoli New York, 2011)
Julius Shulman knew how to capture West Coast glamour. Though he is best-known for photographs of modernist architectural masterpieces, especially the idealized private spaces contained within midcentury homes like Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House (also known as Case Study House No. 22), Shulman’s love of Los Angeles sprawled from coffee shops to luxury homes and from community colleges to the majestic Griffith Park. But in his photographic universe, he kept order, with pitch-perfect arrangements of Knoll and Herman Miller furnishings and a meticulously composed vanishing point.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in rural Connecticut until the age of 10, when his family moved to Los Angeles, Shulman maintained his connection to nature while simultaneously documenting a new urban paradigm that was taking shape on the West Coast. Shulman sought spiritual sanctity in the beauty of the physical world—both built and natural—but never in a synagogue. He had no interest in ethno-centrism or Jewish exceptionalism. Yet he maintained close relationships with architects in the progressive modern movement, many of whom were Jewish émigrés from Europe who often found philosophical and professional support from Jewish Americans.
Architects of American synagogues embraced the seismic shift of modernism, and so too did practitioners and patrons of residential and commercial modern design. This generally meant rejecting historical precedent in favor of a forward-thinking visual and spatial vocabulary that valued clean lines and new technologies over fussy ornamentation. When it came time to design a home and studio for himself on a bucolic Hollywood hillside, where Shulman bought a plot in 1947, he hired his friend Raphael Soriano, a Sephardic Jew who immigrated from Rhodes, Greece, to Los Angeles. The project was completed in 1950, and Shulman lived and worked at the property until his death at home on July 15, 2009, at the age of 98.
Although Shulman traveled with his camera and took photographs abroad, two recent books about him reveal new insights into his relationship with his adopted hometown. This spring’s Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis—which features text by architectural writer Sam Lubell and a forward by Shulman’s daughter Judy McKee—shows how Shulman recorded all corners of L.A. as it went through various boom cycles and forged a new path for cities in the West. Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles draws from a 2007-2008 exhibition of Shulman’s work at Los Angeles Central Library that featured a range of buildings and environments. And Shulman’s legacy is again manifest in several exhibitions associated with the Getty-coordinated citywide series of exhibitions, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, which continues through April 2012.
For the accompanying slideshow, author Lubell selected images representative of Shulman’s life and work. His commentary is provided in the captions.
Jessica Ritz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
When people speak of architectural photography, these two images always come up as arguably the most iconic and moving of all. You may not know the photographer’s name, you may not know the architect– but if you’ve ever seen these images and appreciate both photography & architecture, they are most likely seared on your mind’s eye.
Julius Shulman was a photographer for 70+ yrs, capturing some of the world’s most amazing structures and spaces ever created by man. He set the standard that others now strive to reach, and when they can’t– they may simply stage or frame a shot using his famous works like a proven template as homage and acknowledgement that it just doesn’t get any better. Shulman brought Mid-Century Modern to the world as much as the legendary architects he worked with. Sought out not just for for his incredible eye– he had an innate ability to understand and interpret the architect’s intent, and tell that story strikingly with laser-like focus. Correction: Shulman didn’t set the standard– he is the standard.
Architect Richard Neutra’s “other” Kaufmann House built in Palm Springs, 1946– the first being Fallingwater, and yes– Frank Lloyd Wright’s feathers were indeed ruffled over this apparent snub when Pittsburgh department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann selected another architect for this project. Published in the LIFE Magazine feature “Glamourized Houses” in 1949. –Image by © Julius Shulman / J.Paul Getty Trust / Julius Shulman photography archive. “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.” –Mary Melton
Architect Pierre Koenig’s 1960 Stahl House, Case Study House #22, Los Angeles, California. –Image by © Julius Shulman / J.Paul Getty Trust / Julius Shulman photography archive. “l wanted to breathe some air into the house, not to pose them (the girls) with their faces in the camera necessarily, but to get a feeling of natural activity, as well as using them for scale. After all, architecture is for people. It was a warm night, and I was inside photographing the house with Pierre. I happened to step outside and saw the view, and here the girls were sitting through the glass, just having a conversation. My assistant was setting some lights for me (we were doing an interior photograph) and then when I saw what was going on, I quickly came back in the house and told everyone, ‘We’re changing the composition,’ brought the camera outside, and readjusted the lights. My wife used to say. ‘After all, it’s only a glass box with two girls sitting in it.’ But somehow that one scene expresses what architecture is all about. What if I hadn’t gone outside to see the view? I would have missed a historic photograph, and more than that, we would have missed the opportunity to introduce this kind of architecture to the world.” –Julius Shulman, The Making of an Icon
More reading on Julius Shulman:
A SHOT IN THE DARK | LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE
LENS MASTER | LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE
THE MAKING OF AN ICON | TASCHEN READING ROOM
JULIUS SHULMAN (1910-2009) | ARCH DAILY
GLAMOURIZED HOUSE | AN ANNOTATED & ILLUSTRATED BIBLIOGRAPHY
STAHL HOUSE | CASE STUDY HOUSE NO. 22