Taking Julius Shulman out in public

Julius Shulman turned 97 Wednesday. To mark the occasion, the Getty Center has organized a sweeping treatment of his photography that opened last weekend and runs through January at the Central Library downtown. The show's generosity lies chiefly in the fact that its curators, Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, show Shulman enough respect to steer well clear of sycophancy.

The Getty Research Institute, which acquired Shulman's archive in 2005, deserves credit for bringing these 150 pictures down from its Westside hilltop into the center of the city, since the center of the city is one of the exhibition's main subjects. The trade-off is that the installation is a little rough around the edges, without the hermetic attention to detail you get inside the Getty's own galleries.

The photographs, all in black and white, are inkjet prints, some of which appear to have been hustled quickly into their frames. (A shot of the Union Bank skyscraper buckles away from its backing enough to make the Miesian, ramrod-straight tower look curvy.) And each group of pictures is installed to be viewed from right to left, creating a jumbled choreography.

But as a whole, the show, titled "Julius Shulman's Los Angeles," is a revelation, mostly because it is driven by a strong and surprising point of view. It argues that the public dimension of Shulman's work has been overshadowed by his iconic pictures of Modernist houses tucked away in the hills.

It also makes the case that his photographs of past attempts to promote development -- downtown, in Century City and elsewhere -- can tell us something meaningful about current ones. Shulman's shots of Bunker Hill circa 1970 have a lot to say, for instance, about Frank Gehry's mixed-use proposal for Grand Avenue, which will soon be under construction. They illustrate the way the entire hill and its collection of Victorians were flattened in the 1960s to make way for high-rise development, which continues to be seen by power brokers as the key to that neighborhood's success.

Don't get me wrong. The private houses -- stylish, uncluttered designs by Neutra, Schindler, Koenig and others -- are here too. But those familiar shots are outnumbered and are given a supporting role to play. For the first time, or the first time in a long time, viewers will get a full sense of Shulman's role in photographing, documenting and helping to bring attention to the city's skyscrapers, business districts, infrastructure and public landmarks. And unlike a rather pristine 2005 exhibition of Shulman's photography at the Getty Center, which De Wit and Alexander organized quickly after the museum acquired his archive, this one goes out of its way to show his work at its most gritty and muscular.

As a result, this collection of images seems likely to shift the public perception of Shulman, who with Gehry is among the city's most emblematic artistic personalities. In blowing up his images -- which he tends to print at an 8-by-10-inch scale -- to sizes as large as 40-by-50 inches, and in putting a curatorial spotlight on his photographs of public buildings, the exhibition gives new dimension and depth to Shulman's promotional artistry.

It makes clear that he was increasingly enlisted, as his career wore on, to help sell the kind of urban revitalization programs in which the city's elite has long been engaged. If the show has a central, organizing image, it is a view from 1971 of the Bunker Hill redevelopment site. Under dramatic, ominous skies, the photograph, looking north, shows several parcels of land freshly scraped clean -- a reminder that Robert Moses' New York wasn't the only city that tried aggressively to reorder the urban landscape in the 1960s and 1970s.

That picture and others like it are at heart about artifice at a massive, metropolitan scale. We also get to see Shulman himself employ the same technique, if in a decidedly more modest way. One image, presumably taken by an assistant, shows Shulman preparing a shot of a 1950s house by Cliff May and Chris Choate. His hair swept back, a sweater dangling from one shoulder, Shulman props up a branch ripped unceremoniously from a nearby tree above a row of flowers, with the camera set up so it peers through this temporary garden. The photograph created by the sleight of hand is also on view. Together the pair shows how diligently Shulman worked to create photographs of carefree California living.

If the show is at pains to document Shulman's role as a civic booster, and as a businessman as much as an artist, he seems as eager as ever to play the part. "Living in Los Angeles is a glorious experience," he told me in a phone conversation this week.

Those feelings have always been at the heart of his approach to photography. Simply put, he wants the city to look good. This places him directly at odds with the generation of photographers who followed him here. They have been more interested in using their work to show the messy vitality of the city, the found poetry of its strip malls and concrete landscapes. The same is true of the architects who came after the Modernists whom Shulman admired so much. Though the exhibition includes photographs taken as late as 2006, buildings by Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Franklin Israel and Gehry are conspicuously absent.

That generational split was smoothed over during the last decade or so as the public rediscovered Midcentury Modernism in general and the Case Study houses in particular. For new fans of L.A.'s modern architecture, Shulman's work became a window into a fashionable era.

But occasionally the split forces its way into public view. At a 2005 panel held at the Cinerama Dome, Shulman clashed with actor Ben Stiller over a book of L.A. photographs that Stiller co-edited. The book, "Looking at Los Angeles," includes some of Shulman's images but also the work of several younger photographers, including Tim Street-Porter and Catherine Opie. According to several accounts of the event (which I did not attend), Shulman wasn't happy that many photographs in the book showed the city looking less than spotless.

Given that history, the curators have risked offending Shulman's sensibilities by including a handful of images here that are similarly realistic. One 1978 photograph shows a prewar bungalow court on Sunset Boulevard that steps up a hill. Graffiti crawls over the two bungalows at the bottom. You can make out a few spray-painted phrases, including the words "Echo Parque." Other photographs include piles of construction debris, conspicuous chain link and oil-stained streets.

Deciding to hang these photographs in the show must have been tricky, given that Shulman's views on beauty and the city are so deeply felt and so well known. But they offer an encouraging hint about the Getty's future plans for the Shulman archive, which includes 260,000 negatives, prints and transparencies. They suggest that curators are determined, as they should be, to use the resource for something far more ambitious than the museum equivalent of a coffee-table book.