Los Angeles Times Interview : Julius Shulman : Capturing the Essence of California Architecture

<i> Steve Proffitt is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke with Julius Shulman at the photographer's home in the Hollywood Hills</i>

In 1960, Julius Shulman took a photograph that, perhaps more than any other single image, conveys the style, grace and allure of postwar Los Angeles. Inside a steel-topped glass box balanced lightly on a hilltop, two young women in white cotton chat, while the City of Angels sparkles below. It is a picture both nostalgic and modern, the work of a self-taught photographer who truly invented himself.

In 1936, Shulman used a vest-pocket Kodak to snap a shot of a Hollywood home designed by architect Richard Neutra. A brash 26-year-old, he showed the picture to Neutra, and a career was born. Neutra hired him to photograph some of his other projects, and introduced the young photographer to such other leading West Coast architects as R.M. Schindler, Raphael Soriano and Gregory Ain. Shulman’s dramatic prints played an important role in establishing an international reputation for these and other Southern California architects, especially during the ‘50s, a period many consider the golden age of Modernism. More than any architect of that era, he created a public image of the California style of design.

Perhaps because he never had formal training, Shulman worked intuitively, eschewing light meters and fancy light-reflecting umbrellas, and relying on nature. Yet, he was a master manipulator, often working at twilight, creating long exposures, opening and closing the lens, while turning lights on and off, to create texture and contrast. His clients often expressed surprise when seeing his images, for Shulman created a vision even they, as the creating architects, had never seen.


Shulman, who turns 84 tomorrow, lives with his wife, Olga, in a steel-frame house designed, in 1949, for them by Soriano. Long walls of glass contrast with corrugated sheet-steel siding. The house is hidden within two heavily wooded acres in the Hollywood Hills.

In 1986, Shulman announced his retirement, in part as a way of expressing his distaste for post-modernist design. But the lure of the lens was too strong, and now, back at work, he’s busier than ever. A retrospective of his early photographs is currently on view at the Craig Krull gallery in Santa Monica, and a biography, “A Constructed View: The Architectural Photographs of Julius Shulman,” by Joseph Rosa, has been published by Rizzoli. Inside his studio-office, Shulman shows off prints and publications, bouncing around the room with the energy of a teen-ager, promising not to retire until he hits 120.


Question: What were the elements that came together to make the 1950s so robust in terms of architecture in the Los Angeles area?

Answer: I’d say, first, the economy. The ‘50s were glorious years . . . . The population was booming--people were coming to Los Angeles from all over the world. And architects were given free rein. They were allowed to experiment, not in the way that is being done today--these horrible monstrosities being made in the name of post-modernism--but with integrity. The architects of this period, people like Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Gregory Ain--they respected the client. Every line they drew was drawn with the client in mind.

Those were the great years and the result was that, throughout the world, there was a recognition of these architects’ work. I was lucky to be doing the right thing at the right place at the right time. So anytime, anybody wanted a photograph of a modern house, Uncle Julius provided the picture.

Q: Can you describe the essence of the design philosophy of these ‘50s Californian architects?


A: I have to backtrack a little to answer that. In the 1930s, it was the heyday of what we call the International style. Architects like Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano--these men were following a very austere, Bauhaus kind of practice. The result was that many architects who followed people like Neutra began to edit that style of architecture, by doing things like literally raising the roof. They said, “We don’t have to have just a box, let’s add a little character to the design.”

And that was one of the things that happened during the ‘50s, and right up to the ‘60s. Soriano, for example, who did my house, used an all-steel framework. During the earthquake--it was a shattering, powerful quake--we had not a crack. I am indebted to Soriano for his discipline in using those steel frames. The earthquake has proven this type of architecture is completely successful.

Yet, Soriano didn’t have a client for 25 years. The public didn’t recognize his work; they didn’t buy it. But other architects modified the austerity, began to create more space with higher ceilings, sloping roof lines, and created some character.

Q: So would you say that, in the 1950s, California architects held on to the framework of the Bauhaus, and humanized it?

A: Yes. The dominant feature of contemporary architecture in the ‘50s was glass. My house has two window walls, which are 30 feet long. That’s great for us, because we are on a large piece of property, surrounded by a jungle. But, as my wife has always said, put this house on a 50-foot lot on a city street, and it would be a disaster.

Soriano once built a house in Long Beach on a normal, city-street lot. The bathroom faced the street, and he walled it with obscure glass--textured glass. He told the owner she didn’t need draperies because of the obscure glass.


She moved in, had a open house to meet her neighbors, and one of them said to her, “I hope we can be friendly and tell you this. We admire your figure when you take a shower.” The obscure glass provided a perfect view of her silhouette. The next day she got draperies.

So the architects who came down the line refined the architecture. They designed with less glass, more solid walls, more space. And the result was an architecture that became popular throughout the world. You could almost say it was an evolution in design, to fit the needs of more and more people.

Q: What happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s? Why did modernism in architecture fall into disfavor and disuse?

A: One of the reasons was that the public-at-large still didn’t buy the work of contemporary architects. And by the ‘70s, a new breed of architect came on the scene--represented by men like Frank Gehry and Michael Graves and even Charles Moore--who introduced a sloping, high-cathedral-ceiling kind of design. People began to say, “Hey, this is good,” because these designs didn’t have the walls of glass like the ‘40s and ‘50s designs did. The result was that they began to accept what I call “weird architecture.”

And, right now, we are in still another transition. Even architects like Gehry are beginning to reform their designs. He admits that he is an experimenter, and his work is often not well-received by the public. Nowadays, the elite--the people who can afford it--they want something “different.” They are getting it. And they are paying for it.

Q: Let’s turn back to your career, and the way you use the camera. You’ve said the camera is not important when it comes to taking a picture. What do you mean?


A: The camera is the least important element in our work. Photography is dependent on the eye, the mind, the heart and the soul of the photographer. Many times, even architects aren’t aware of the presence of their structures, and they will ask, “How did you get this picture?”

In 1937, the architect Stile Clements, one of the old-timers, had done the Coulters Department Store on Wilshire (razed in 1980). The building faced north. He called me--it was late in June--and asked me to photograph it. But he said there was a problem: Because it faced north, he thought I wouldn’t get any sunlight on the face of the building. I didn’t say anything other than that I could photograph it.

Well, being a good Boy Scout, I knew that the sun rises in the summertime in the northeast and sets in the northwest. Architects often don’t know these things. And so I went down early one Sunday morning--I do most of my public buildings on Sunday when there is less traffic, especially in those days. I set up my camera across the street, the sun was beaming across the north face of the building, and I made an 8x10 photograph. I gave it to Clements the next week and he said, “How did you do this, I thought the sun didn’t hit the north side of the building?” And I said, “Oh, it was easy Mr. Clements, I just turned the building to face the sun.”

The point is that I have always tried to be conscious of the site, the direction of the sun--by the minute. I learned to look at a building and know exactly what time of day to photograph, to best reflect and define the quality of the architecture. It has nothing to do with snapping a shutter. My photography is based on the quality of my vision, my feeling for nature, the site and location of a building and what was around the building.

Q: You almost always include people in your photographs, something fairly unique to you in architectural photography. Why people in a picture of a building?

A: For scale, and also to create a feeling of occupancy. When I photograph, for instance, a university building, I will round up some young people and put them in places where they fill in voids in the space. Without the people, you would get a flat, vacant, austere photograph. Sometimes, I will tell people, “OK, that’s it, we’re all through”--and just as they start to move and walk away, that’s when I actually take the picture.


Q: Your photograph of the Pierre Koenig house is, to me, an almost perfect expression of the optimism of the 1950s--the house cantilevered over the city below, and the two women so breezy and sleek and sophisticated. Did you know how dramatic this photograph would be when you took it then?

A: Well, people just love to see that picture. It represents a quality of architecture and photography that is not very well-observed. But the ironic thing is that when I took the exposure in my 4x5 camera, I honestly didn’t know what I had. I saw something--a mood and a scene. But I didn’t realize I had made what would literally be one of my masterpieces.

Q: It seems silly to ask, but who are those two women?

A: Pierre Koenig, the architect, told me he wanted to bring some of his students when I photographed the house, and I told him to have them bring their girlfriends; I’ll use them as models. I never imagined this picture, though--we were doing photographs of the interior of the house. Then I happened to step outside, and I saw the view, and the girls in the house, chatting. I thought, “Wow, this might make a fine picture!” So I set my camera up outside, turned the lights off in the house, and exposed the film for about seven minutes, to capture the lights of the city below. Then we set off a flash inside the house to get the girls on film, and that was it.

Q: So it’s a composite--an image the human eye itself could never experience in reality?

A: Exactly. And can you believe that until I read the title of the new book about me by Joseph Rosa--”A Constructed View”--did I understand that is exactly what I was doing for these 59 years: I construct my view of a building. My wife has always said that I capture a moment which can never be reproduced. No photographer could go back to that Koenig house and reconstruct that photograph--no matter how hard he tried. It was a secret, wonderful moment in my life. It almost makes you feel religious--thank God, I’m an atheist!


You know, I’ve never used an exposure meter. I often use natural, reflected light. I rely on nature, and the picture comes out because I know the value and quality of the film I’m using. I feel blessed that I’ve been ordained, if you will, to do this kind of photography and not only make a success out of it, but to create a success for the architects as well.*