A photographic memory

Times Staff Writer

It’s 10 o’clock, and the tri-level Modernist mini-manse near the crest of Laurel Canyon Boulevard is swathed in sharp morning sunlight, the Rudolf M. Schindler design aglow against a sky of L.A. blue. It seems a perfect picture, but the photographer in the frontyard knows it’s not. At least not yet.

“You see the bottom of this?” Julius Shulman says to associate Juergen Nogai, tracing his finger along a Polaroid test picture, then pointing to the driveway. “Crop it here. We don’t need that. Yeah, we have to be tighter.”

A Times photographer soon becomes the next object of Shulman’s instruction. “Be sure to get Juergen with me,” Shulman says, in a friendly tone, but still as though he’s speaking to an assistant.


Enter the dogs. Chuck and Brian — affable Corgi mixes and residents of the house — saunter onto a second floor balcony, heads cocked quizzically, unaware that they too are about to be put to work.

“Oh, that’s nice! Just stay right where you are,” commands Shulman, waving his finger as Chuck retreats to a nearby chaise. “No, no!” he yells as Brian starts to follow. “Stay! There. Right. Stay.”

And to no one’s surprise, the dog obeys.

At 94, the grandfather of architectural photography in California still commands respect from seemingly everyone — and everything — around him. Warm, witty, occasionally impatient but almost always cordial, Shulman still speaks with authority, with an abundance of implied italics, as if to offer listeners every last bit of emphasis. Ask about a photo shoot and he snaps, “Listen, it’s not a shoot. I’m not a hunter. I’m a photographer. I do photography.”

When the J. Paul Getty Trust announced in January that it had purchased Shulman’s archive spanning 68 years — a trove of 260,000 negatives, transparencies and prints, including celebrated images of Modernist architecture by Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner — many assumed that, with his legacy secure, the photographer would retire. Rest. Relax.

But here he is, cane in hand, eye behind lens, documenting the 1936-built Fitzpatrick House off Woodrow Wilson Drive, a home that Shulman first photographed almost seven decades ago. The reason for his return: a renovation that has brought back much of Schindler’s classic design, including a stunning bank of floor-to-ceiling living room windows that one prior owner, entertainer Martha Raye, inexplicably had replaced with sheetrock.

The photographer and the house are a fitting match. As the two spend more time together, one truth becomes increasingly clear. The home, through all of its permutations, is a fine metaphor for Shulman himself — enduring, endearing and, most of all, still evolving.

Inside the Fitzpatrick House, it’s hard to believe the man directing the action fell into his profession largely by chance. The year developer Clifton Fitzpatrick and architect Schindler started construction, Shulman was in his seventh year of “majoring in nothing” at UCLA, then UC Berkeley.

But in 1936, the legend goes, he happened to meet a boarder in his sister’s Los Angeles home. The boarder happened to be Neutra’s assistant. And the assistant happened to show Neutra some snapshots Shulman had taken of the architect’s Kun House, an angular hillside cube near Fairfax Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. And Neutra happened to like the photos. And …

“March 5, 1936 — I remember the day — we shook hands for the first time,” Shulman says. “I met Richard Neutra, and that was the day I became a photographer.”

In those early years, he used only a rudimentary Kodak vest pocket camera on a tripod with natural light — no flash. Architects loved his work because it celebrated theirs: the purely horizontal floor, perfectly vertical walls, the play of light and shadow.

Shulman wasn’t alone in developing the art of architectural photography, says Thomas S. Hines, professor of cultural, urban and architectural history at UCLA. He cites Marvin Rand in Southern California, Morley Baer in the Bay Area and, on the East Coast, Ezra Stoller, best known for photographing Richard Meier’s early work. But, Hines says, Shulman still ranks as “one of the best in the world of the 20th century.”

Wim de Wit, head of special collections and architectural curator at the Getty Research Institute in Brentwood, says Shulman started his career at a time when much of the nation didn’t think of L.A. as a place of art or culture. His photos of a maturing California that appeared in Arts and Architecture, Life and other magazines and newspapers affected perceptions among the intellectual elite as well as the masses.

“People on the East Coast didn’t know what a Neutra or what a Schindler was doing out here. He was making their work known to the world at large,” De Wit says. “He also made people understand that Modern architecture wasn’t necessarily bad or cold. He showed how it could be quite livable. His pictures helped people understand how the buildings worked.”

Toshiko Mori, chairwoman of the architecture program at Harvard University’s design school calls the result “a total ethos.”

“He’s able not only to document the site and the building, but also to capture the atmosphere and the era without being sentimental or nostalgic,” she says. “It’s a talent that’s very rare: someone who has an innate sense, a sixth sense to see the intent of the architects.”

An architectural photographer’s mission is to capture a building’s character and personality, as well as its skeleton and skin, says Michael Arden, a photography lecturer at USC’s School of Architecture. “It’s as if you take a sketchbook or canvas,” he says, “and are painting a portrait. You’re like an artist interpreting his subject.”

In the Fitzpatrick House living room, it’s clear that Shulman thinks this model needs more makeup.

“Do you have a bowl of fruit? A platter?” he asks homeowner Russ Leland, more a suggestion than a question.

Kitchen lights on or off? “Off,” Shulman says.

Bring out another chair to fill a void in the frame? “Yes, good idea,” Shulman says, pointing to the exact spot where he wants it. “Move it more. More. Nice.”

Nogai, Shulman’s creative collaborator and business partner of six years, steps away from the tripod to rearrange the angle at which some stools face the camera. “No!” Shulman says. “Square. I like them square. And move that lamp over there, so half of it is peeking from behind the wall. And the table it’s on — let’s move it two or three inches. Stop. There!” He gives the scene one final look, then announces: “Let’s take it.”

The Fitzpatrick House has waited decades to look this picture-perfect. Leland can’t remember if he knew the 2,400-square-foot hillside home was a Schindler when he bought it 15 years ago. “I don’t even know if I knew who Schindler was,” he says.

At the time, the place hardly seemed a classic. The three-story chimney was sinking, bringing the rest of the house with it. A fireplace’s brick facade was plastered over. A second-floor balcony, oddly, was walled in. Raye, Leland says, had turned Schindler’s glass-and-light living room into a claustrophobic box.

But little had changed when he received a phone call 10 years ago. The caller was a man who said a lost dog with Leland’s number on the tags had curled up at his door. The dog was Chuck. The man was Julius Shulman.

In the years that followed, much to the photographer’s delight, Leland researched Schindler’s original design and set out to recapture its essence. He raised the chimney and poured concrete underneath, so the house sat level. His architect, Jeff Fink, contacted a metalworks shop in Santa Ana that deconstructed Schindler’s original design for steel-framed windows and sliding glass doors, then fabricated a complete new set. The living room saw the return of its glass wall overlooking Laurel Canyon Boulevard as it snakes south toward West Hollywood.

Leland also did things that disappointed purists. Wanting a more open floor plan, he tore out Schindler’s kitchen wall and didn’t reconstruct the original built-in sofa in the living room. He kept the frontyard pool, a languid oval added more than 30 years ago.

Shulman, however, loves the home’s current incarnation. Life without change would be boring, he says. The point of returning to the Fitzpatrick House is to see how a remnant of the past lives on in the present — and evolves for the future. “If the house looked identical, there would be no reason for me to be here,” he says.

The hour hand of the clock stretches toward 2, and the most anyone has eaten all day is a couple of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of Orangina. But the work presses on.

“Do you have placements for the patio table? And glasses? Oh, and let’s look over here,” Shulman says to Leland, pushing away his walker and shuffling to a display case of ceramics.

He plucks a cherry-colored pitcher to dress the patio table. He requests the repositioning of a chaise, orders the addition of a throw pillow. He tells an incredulous Leland to deposit newly purchased red and yellow ranunculus — still in their plastic nursery trays — into a decorative salad bowl on the table. “Yes, do it,” Shulman says, sensing resistance. “That’s it. Good.”

Sure enough, the oranges, the red pitcher and floral hues, the hint of a pool in the distance — they all pop on the Polaroid, bright colors playing off walls of stark, Modernist white.

“Oh my God,” says Shulman, patting Nogai on the back and chuckling. “We’re good photographers.”

Hours later, with the sun dropping in the west, Shulman and Nogai hurriedly set up for the final picture of the day, looking across the pool to the patio and the house beyond. They still work without breaks, their enthusiasm waning only occasionally. At one point, when homeowner Leland unexpectedly starts to return living room furniture to his preferred layout, Shulman mutters incredulously, “What’s he doing? If he moves that chaise I’ll hit him.”

The chaise, much to everyone’s relief, stays put. The photo goes off without a hitch.

In the two weeks that follow, Shulman only gets busier. He travels to Palm Springs for appearances at a Modernism convention, then jets off to Mexico for a weeklong assignment documenting the late Abraham Zabludovsky’s architecture in the state of Veracruz.

He returns to L.A., wraps up a daylong photography session on location, then retreats to his studio early one evening to read mail and return calls under a sign that reads, “Old Age & Treachery Will Overcome Youth & Skill.”

“At this stage in life, normal people die,” he likes to say. “But I look in the obituaries every day, and my name isn’t there yet.”

Though the bulk of his archives have been transferred to the Getty, two light tables are still littered with slides. The labels — “SLO mustard field 10/50,” “Jack Benny portrait,” “Rockefeller Center” — hopscotch across decades, states, subjects. History surrounds him, but it’s the future that dominates the photographer’s mind. Sixty-nine years after he dropped out of college, Shulman has teamed with the architecture school at Woodbury University in Burbank to create the Julius Shulman Institute. The mission: to expose high school students and college undergraduates to creative fields they may not otherwise explore, including art, fashion, food and, yes, photography.

Too many students, he says, have natural talents that aren’t developed at school or nurtured by parents. Young people choose careers before knowing their strengths — or even their interests. Before he met Neutra, Shulman says, “I thought I’d get a job raking leaves in Griffith Park. Seriously. I never thought much more than that about my future. I probably would still be there today.

“I can’t help but think there’s a union between my life and theirs. I’m expanding my vernacular. It opens up a new chapter, the next step in my life.”

For many, however, the photographer has long been a teacher. In the preface to Shulman’s 1998 autobiography, Frank O. Gehry recalls his days as a student at USC in the 1940s, when Shulman often invited him to his house, introduced him to his circle of architect friends and “stirred my imagination and contributed a great deal to the beginnings of my career.”

Neutra’s son Dion, an apprentice in Shulman’s studio in the ‘40s, remembers being amazed by the master’s ability to visualize scenes and deliver them in the darkroom. “Every one of them was like an art piece, individually crafted,” says Dion, now 78.

Shulman still starts most mornings in his studio at 9, fielding calls from book publishers, friends, fellow photographers and fans. The calls are so frequent that he has the office line routed to nine phones throughout his house.

One day he has interviews and photo sessions with the New York Times, the L.A. Daily News, the Downtown News and Sunset magazine. The next day, he’s back in Palm Springs to address high school students about natural talents, nontraditional career paths and “their potential for having an open mind.”

At any given time, he and Nogai have half a dozen photography assignments pending. Their coffee-table book “Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea,” will be released by Harry N. Abrams in May; three books are in the works with German publisher Taschen, he says.

In late September, Shulman will fly to Frankfurt for the German Architecture Museum’s celebration of his 95th birthday. By Oct. 10, the day he actually turns 95, he will be back in Los Angeles for the Getty Research Institute’s birthday party and exhibit of his work. Curator De Wit says the staff is still poring over more than 70,000 negatives and 70,000 prints of Shulman’s that document “the whole history of Modernism and the development of Los Angeles as a city.”

By 6 p.m., night has arrived and a long day’s work is complete. But the phone keeps ringing, and Shulman keeps answering. He doesn’t have to, he says. Money is the last of his worries. His two-acre home and studio already is deeded to daughter Judy McKee, who runs his business affairs. The undisclosed sum paid by the Getty for his archives also is in her name. “Why do I need it?” he asks rhetorically. “I don’t need a future. I already have it.”