master of modernism

In a body of work spanning over half a century, photographer Julius Shulman has created some of architecture’s most memorable images and provided the definitive view of California’s Modernist legacy. He’s still going.


Julius Shulman has been an architectural photographer since 1936, when his sister’s roommate took him to see a house Richard Neutra was building in the Hollywood Hills. The story goes that Shulman, who always toted around a Kodak Vest Pocket 127-format camera, snapped a few exposures of the glistening white stucco, glass and steel roost. He made a set of prints for the friend, who was a draftsman in Neutra’s office, and word came back that the notoriously opinionated Viennese émigré wanted an interview. Neutra proclaimed the photos “reveal the essence of my design” and asked if Shulman was a professional. The 26-year-old amateur answered, “No.” Neutra promptly signed him up.

What Neutra saw in Shulman’s shots was a photographer with an innate ability to put a building in context-in the case of Neutra and his Modernist confreres that meant the natural setting. In those early shots, Shulman captured the poetry of Neutra’s machine-like geometry. Shulman instinctively grasped that the piercing Southern California sun and barren scrub-brush hillsides lent the architecture an ineffable, bracing air. As Esther McCoy said of Shulman, “He had an eye that knew how light blessed a building.” Only the Los Angeles of the 1930s could produce such an eye. This was something new, and as Shulman would prove, it could only happen here.

Fifty years after that chance encounter with an undisputed master, having photographed nearly everything Neutra designed-as well as the work of just about every other resident modernist from Gregory Ain to Abraham Zabludovsky-Shulman retired, harumphing that he refused to photograph “bad buildings.”

Now 97 years old, Shulman is no longer retired. Indeed, he’s been revived and reissued, along with the architecture he helped make iconic. Taschen, the German publisher known for its compendious books, has issued a weighty, three-volume set entitled “Julius Shulman, Modernism Rediscovered,” including more than 4,000 images culled from the 250,000-image archive Shulman donated four years ago to the Getty. “Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles,” an exhibit at the Los Angeles Central Library Getty Gallery, assembled 150 rarely seen photographs of a callow, boosterish city on the make. This winter, the Palm Springs Art Museum will be offering an exhibition entitled “Julius Shulman: Palm Springs,” focusing on Shulman’s work in that modernist oasis, featuring a cache of Shulman images-some commissioned exclusively for the exhibit-
demonstrating the peculiar suitability of an arid landscape to modern buildings. Curator Michael Stern and Alan Hess have written a companion volume to the show. Meanwhile, Rizzoli has re-issued the invaluable “A Constructed View,” the most insightful book on Shulman.

As if that isn’t enough, this fall Shulman was prominently spotlighted in the Orange County Museum of Art’s “Birth of the Cool” exhibition, and Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica offered a show of recent work by Shulman, made with Juergen Nogai, who has been Shulman’s collaborative partner since 2000. And in January, he will be the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award given by photo l.a., the annual photographic art fair based in Santa Monica.

In other words, business is booming. Why not? Modernism is in vogue, and no one did more to glamorize it than Julius Shulman: a fact truer today than 50 years ago, when he was busy documenting a movement in the making. In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, even in the 1960s, the homes and buildings Shulman artfully captured on silver nitrate were for devotees only. It is easy to forget, now that the works of Los Angeles’ seminal modernists have been canonized-and are being auctioned off by Christie’s-that Shulman, and the architecture he photographed, was celebrated by a very small circle of men and women who believed in the radical notion that a house or a school or an office building could smash the hierarchy of family life, strip education of cant and rote, and liberate desks jockeys of drudgery. If you look closely at Shulman’s images-for instance, at the boys lying about in the three-partition bedroom of Harry Harrison’s 1949 Engelberg House or at the louvered awnings of Walter Wurdeman and Welton Becket’s Prudential Building, which seem to salute the wide aperture of the L.A. basin-you cannot fail to see the ideals of Modernism.

This impression is hardly accidental. Shulman came to embrace the ambitions of those architects. He also understood, perhaps better than any of them, that a photograph could deliver the kind of wallop a building itself might not. Perhaps more than the architecture itself, Shulman’s photographs conveyed a sense that living in a home designed by Soriano or Lautner was simply better.

A good deal of artifice was required to make this impression. Modern architecture often seemed lifeless and cold. How was an individual supposed to live in all that steadfast, glassy austerity? Glamourously, over-lit, and levitated above a vast world of twinkling streetlights: that was Shulman’s answer, as in his eternal image of Case Study House No. 22 (Stahl Residence), Pierre Koenig’s 1959 work commissioned under the auspices of John Entenza, the prophetic editor of Arts & Architecture magazine. The image is so embossed on our retinas that we sometimes think the visual memory is our own. It may as well be, even if it is staged.

The house, which seems to be cantilevered and perilously close to sliding downslope, barely projects a few feet past the face of the hillside. Two women, dressed like Vogue models, are posed casually, oblivious of the panoramic view and their privileged, commanding perch. They provide the nonchalance needed to balance the hyperbole of such a spectacular setting. Shulman manages to convey the dizzying feeling of loftiness by putting his camera at exactly the right height and angle, sandwiching the skyline between the wafer-thin roof and a chaise lounge. Everything is bright as moonlight. You think the house is voluminous and vertiginous, when it is really quite small, and firmly anchored on a flat, stable pad.

Yet the black-and-white is believed to be the single most published architectural photograph ever. It broadcast modern architecture-and Southern California-to the world. As Joseph Rosa notes in “A Constructed View” “The photograph does not necessarily document the house but reflects an image of the postwar lifestyle that was to become representative of the modernity of California.”

It is unclear today, looking at Shulman’s photographs, whose work made whose reputation. As Shulman is fond of recalling, Walter Gropius, the godfather of the Bauhaus School, asked him in 1963, “Does the photographer or the architect anticipate what is being resolved during an exposure?”

While it is true Shulman liked to dress his sets and provide homes with living manikins (architects call them “witnesses”), his work is hardly fictional. It is dramatic and often avowedly promotional, even propagandistic. Indeed, Shulman was, as he has said, a “bread and butter” photographer; many of the photographs at the downtown Central Library show remind us that he was shooting publicity stills of big corporate projects, like the Occidental Life Insurance tower and Alcoa’s Century City. He happily, and skillfully, played up details that magazine editors loved to publish.

Clarity and balance, however, are what make Shulman’s photographs definitive-and, in the end, more realistic than reality. The 1950 image of the well-known Lovell “Health” House, which Neutra designed in 1929-and which was the casus belli of the split betwe
en Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra-captures the home just when the afternoon sun causes the white walls to pop in contrast to the surrounding hills. The focus is sharp and crisp, and Neutra’s carefully composed volumes become three-dimensional. The scraggly hills offset perfectly the architect’s devout rectangles. Nature, so it seemed, was the perfect setting for Neutra’s rational machine.

Shulman’s photographs exhibit a remarkable ability to put the viewer in the frame. In his 1959 portrait of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House, in Manhattan, he shoots the glass and steel skyscraper out of the shadows of a colonnade across the street. The building reflects the dark shadow of the neighboring skyline and, in a classic Shulman technique, there is a division midline up the height of the tower, where the silhouette of the buildings meets the refection of the blue sky. You can chose to see Manhattan right side up or upside down. A trio of onlookers has paused in the foreground at a wading pool to contemplate the effect, or so it is implied. Naturally, you too are drawn into the image, and thus, the architecture. Shulman has placed you exactly where he was standing. You are there; it’s that simple. Shulman has made you a participant in architecture-gazing.

In another shot, of Pierre Koenig’s House and Studio, which Shulman made (post-retirement) in 1986, artificial lighting tunes the architect’s work. The house is a three-story framework of glass, set in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Shulman overexposed the ground-floor walls, left parts of the ceiling and upper walls in shadow, thereby drawing the outdoors in. The effect is twofold: the room is enlarged and it is enlivened. Although the cavernous space is unoccupied, you don’t feel as if it is empty. A two-story stairway that jogs across a mezzanine, and leads to an outdoor deck, slices diagonally through the shot-a classic technique of Renaissance painting-tying indoors to out. The geometry might be simple, but it is animated by Shulman’s lens.

There are literally thousands of shots like these that Shulman composed, and continues to compose. What he manages in so many of them is to tie the stunning, clear, hopeful vision of Modernism to the optimistic landscape of Southern California. Shulman never saw nature as an enemy, a conquest, a prize. Rather, it was near-at-hand, baking us in the sun’s penetrating rays, inviting us to dream at the foot of its imposing, barren mountains. In a Shulman photograph, the beauty of architecture and the beauty of nature are one. His shots may exaggerate the spaces he’s committing to film; he may fool around with shadows to telescope an effect; but in the end what Shulman managed was to help define Southern California as paradise, with a palpable feeling that the future could only be better.

—Greg Goldin

Recent and upcoming shows highlighting Shulman’s work include:

“Julius Shulman: Palm Springs,”
at Palm Springs Museum of Art

101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs, CA
February 15, 2008-May 4, 2008
(760) 322-4800

“Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles,”
at Los Angeles Central Library, Getty Gallery

630 W. Fifth Street, Downtown LA
October 6, 2007-January 20, 2008

“Julius Shulman & Juergen Nogai:
Recent Architectural Photographs” at Craig Krull Gallery,
Bergamot Station, Santa Monica

October 20, 2007-November 24, 2007
(310) 828-6410