Architectural photographer Julius Shulman has come out of retirement and he’s raring to go. “My wife said, ‘What are you doing? You’re 80 years old. You don’t need to work,’ but it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get me here,” he says, strolling into the historic Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles.
Shulman, who is nearly as famous as many of the renowned architects whose work he has photographed over the past 50 years, is packing a couple of cameras, a tripod and a packet of Bradbury photographs he had shot in 1953. He has been enticed out of retirement to rephotograph the architectural treasure by developer Ira Yellin, the owner of the building.
Built in 1893 by architect George Wyman for mining magnate Lewis Bradbury, the Bradbury Building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a historic monument by the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission. Now in final stages of restoration, the five-story structure at 3rd Street and Broadway is due to re-open in the fall.
“I haven’t photographed for 4 1/2 years, but I got my camera out of storage, threw out my old film and bought new film,” Shulman says. “This isn’t work. This is play. Life’s a joy,” he exclaims--and promptly gets to work.
Putting first things first, he sets up his 4x5 Horseman view camera on a tripod and composes a definitive shot. “I always tell my students, ‘Get one great picture. If the world is destroyed, get one picture that saves it.’ If this building was destroyed by an earthquake in half an hour, we would have a picture to document it,” he says.
That means riding one of the open-cage elevators to the top floor and shooting a picture that captures the sweep of the central, light-filled atrium as well as the grace of the building’s lacy French grillwork, Mexican terra cotta tiles and gleaming mahogany banisters.
“The camera is the least important part of photography. If you are photographing a nude, don’t fuss with the camera, study the girl,” he says as he tackles the job at hand. In this case, the building is “the girl.” She is all done up for this special shoot, but Shulman makes sure her every hair is in place as his head disappears under a black cloth and he composes his shot.
He is reasonably pleased with a trial Polaroid. The horizontal lines of the balconies and railings are parallel, and he has captured the delicate mechanics of the unique interior space, but the back-lighting isn’t quite right. He has forgotten that downtown Los Angeles is not laid out on a north-south axis, so the light streaming through the lofty glass roof is at an angle. Better try a shot from the opposite end of the fifth floor.
“This is important, too,” he says, lugging his equipment around the balcony. “This is how I get my exercise.”
Shulman wants to include people in the picture, so he presses two observers into service, patiently counseling them to put their knees together as they descend the stairs. “It may feel awkward, but it looks much better,” he yells across the atrium.
“To be an architectural photographer, you need to be a fashion photographer,” he confides. “I’ve seen pictures of people in magazines, very prestigious people, who are standing with their legs apart. It’s the photographer’s responsibility to prevent that.”
This time Shulman gets what he wants. “This is a gutsy picture,” he says, presenting a Polaroid for inspection. “I’ve got my one-point perspective and I can burn in this area at the top.”
Now that he has his definitive photograph, he’s free to move on to less expansive shots. Walking down to the fourth floor, he asks an attendant to lower one of the elevator cages so that its control wheel shows and to open the Broadway doors for more light. Then he produces a picture with “a sense of enclosure” that he likes. It’s framed at the bottom by a wood railing that swoops up and leads into the complexity of the building’s distinctive details.
Later, he will close in on marble staircases, ornate elevators and foliate grillwork, and he will “shoot from the hip” with a hand-held 35-millimeter camera.
He seems certain to get some stunning pictures, but he may not top the work he did on Feb. 14, 1953. On that occasion, architectural historian Esther McCoy introduced him to the Bradbury Building. She brought sandwiches and they spent the day.
Shulman resurrected the 1953 prints from his files before tackling his current assignment and was astonished at how sharp they are. The pictures had always been crisp, but Shulman’s vision had gradually clouded as he developed cataracts. Now recovered from cataract surgery, he is rediscovering his own work in all its sparkling detail.
He says he has never been busier. “I get requests for photographs from France, Germany, Austria, all over the world. People are discovering architecture,” he says. In addition, Rizzoli is preparing a book of his work, to be published next year. “It will be an odyssey of my life, from a farm in Connecticut to my family’s journey to Los Angeles in 1920, when I was 10 years old, to my photography,” he says.
Long considered a commercial photographer, Shulman’s work is now turning up in art galleries. Los Angeles photography dealer Craig Krull featured his pictures earlier this year in his gallery’s inaugural show, “Photographing L.A. Architecture.” Now Krull is planning a solo exhibition of Shulman’s work in conjunction with the book’s release.
The veteran photographer loves to tell his audience that Krull recently sold one of his early photographs for $2,000 and that his pictures often bring more than $1,000 apiece. He’s come a long way from the days when he charged $2 for a print and architect Richard Neutra complained about a $10 fee.
Shulman doesn’t mind saying he’s had a great life with his camera and the world’s best known architects, but he’s not keen on their latest products. “One of the reasons I stopped working was that I couldn’t stand what architects are doing. I’ve been asked to photograph new buildings by today’s big names, Michael Graves and Frank Gehry, but I won’t do it. That’s not architecture,” he says, then goes back to work on an architectural jewel of 1893.