Julius Shulman dies at 98; celebrated photographer of modernist architecture
By By Claudia Luther
Jul 17, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Julius Shulman, whose luminous photographs of homes and buildings brought fame to a number of mid-20th century modernist architects and made him a household name in the architectural world, has died. He was 98.
Shulman, who had been in declining health, died Wednesday night at his home in Los Angeles, according to his daughter Judy McKee.
Starting with Richard Neutra in 1936, Shulman's roster of clients read like a who's who of pioneering contemporary architecture: Rudolf M. Schindler, Gregory Ain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, Raphael S. Soriano, John Lautner, Eero Saarinen, Albert Frey, Pierre Koenig, Harwell Harris and many others. His work was contained in virtually every book published on modernist architects.
FOR THE RECORD: Julius Shulman obituary: The obituary of photographer Julius Shulman in the July 17 Section A said that his image of Case Study House #22 first appeared in the Sunday Pictorial section of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner two months after it was taken on May 9, 1960. The Sunday Pictorial was a feature of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper, which merged with the Herald Express in 1962. However, according to the Getty Research Institute, where Shulman's archives are kept, the photo first appeared in the June 1960 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine. —
"He has a sense of visual bravura of composition," wrote the late Robert Sobieszek, photography curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "so that he can take a rather mundane house and make it look exciting, and take a spectacular house and make it look triply spectacular."
Shulman had "a profound effect on the writing and teaching of architectural history and understanding architecture, especially Southern California modernism," Thomas Hines, UCLA professor emeritus of architecture and urban design, once said.
And Newsweek magazine's Cathleen McGuigan wrote that some of Shulman's photographs of modern glass houses in Palm Springs and Los Angeles "are so redolent of the era in which they were built you can practically hear the Sinatra tunes wafting in the air and the ice clinking in the cocktail glasses."
After the Depression, Shulman's studio was one of three in the United States to which Arts & Architecture, Architectural Forum and other magazines turned to document the exciting new work being done in architecture.
Shulman's 1960 photograph of Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 -- a glass-walled, cantilevered structure hovering above the lights of Los Angeles, became one of the most famous architectural pictures ever taken in the United States. It was, as architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times, "one of those singular images that sum up an entire city at a moment in time."
But Shulman's work went well beyond merely taking beautiful pictures of houses and buildings. His mission was to use his photography to build the reputation of the architects who were bringing innovative design to the West. Indeed, his photographs were, by and large, all that most people would ever see of noted architects' works, many of which were later destroyed.
Neutra, whose association with Shulman lasted 34 years until the architect's death in 1970, acknowledged this.
"Film [is] stronger, and good glossy prints are easier [to] ship than brute concrete, stainless steel or even ideas," Neutra said.
Shulman was born Oct. 10, 1910, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. The family moved to a farm in Connecticut, where Shulman first developed a love of nature that, he said, awakened him to light and shadow and influenced his life's course.
When Julius was 10, his father moved the family to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at that time was predominantly Jewish, and opened the New York Dry Goods Store. His father died of tuberculosis in 1923, leaving Julius' mother to run the business and raise five children.
After graduating from Roosevelt High School -- where he took what would be his only course in photography -- Shulman spent seven years as what he called an "academic drifter," auditing geology, philosophy and other courses at UCLA and UC Berkeley. He returned to Los Angeles without a degree and still unsure what he wanted to do.
He was by then, however, earning rent money from pictures he took at Berkeley with an Eastman box camera. And one photograph of the 6th Street Bridge over the L.A. River had won first prize in a national magazine competition.
It was a chance meeting with Neutra in March 1936 -- two weeks after Shulman left Berkeley -- that would open up the possibility of becoming an architectural photographer. A man who was renting a room from Shulman's sister, and who was working as a draftsman for Neutra, invited Shulman along one day to see Neutra's Kun house, which was under construction near Fairfax Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.
As was his habit by then, Shulman took along a vest-pocket camera that was equipped with a bellows that unfolded.
"I had never seen a modern house before," Shulman said. It "intrigued me with its strange forms -- beyond any previous identity of a house in my experience."
Shulman developed a few of the pictures and sent them to the draftsman, who showed them to Neutra. The architect, then in his mid-40s, sent for young Shulman and ordered up more prints.
With Neutra's invitation to photograph other projects, Shulman was suddenly a professional architecture photographer.
"He had an eye for different angles," Neutra's son, Dion, told The Times in 2003. "My dad immediately saw that and mentored him into the field."
Shulman throughout his life would refer to this turn in the road as "fate" or "karma."
"I was lucky to be doing the right thing at the right place at the right time," he told The Times in 1994. "So any time anybody wanted a photograph of a modern house, Uncle Julius provided the picture."
Through Neutra, Shulman met other prominent architects of the time, including Schindler and Soriano, from whom he would learn his craft. Schindler, for example, taught Shulman about lighting photographs when he asked him, "Why on your interiors is the lighting equal in intensity on adjacent walls?"
"What a lesson!" Shulman said. "In my use of floodlights it had not occurred to me that illumination need not be uniform."
His sense of light became instinctual; he stopped working with a light meter a year after he started taking photos for Neutra.
Shulman spent two years in the Army during World War II taking photographs -- mostly of surgical procedures -- before returning to his business in 1945 to find himself in even greater demand.
It was during the postwar housing boom that John Entenza's Arts & Architecture magazine launched its Case Study housing program, hoping to promote good quality, low-cost housing in the modernist idiom.
Of the two dozen Case Study homes designed by such architects as Charles Eames, Craig Ellwood, A. Quincy Jones, Koenig, Neutra and Soriano, Shulman took photographs of 18.
But the image that would secure Shulman's reputation was of Koenig's Case Study House No. 22, a glass and steel-frame home built for Carlotta and Buck Stahl in the Hollywood Hills. Shulman shot the photo as the sun was setting May 9, 1960.
The black-and-white photograph is taken from outside the cantilevered house, shooting through glass walls to the grid of sparkling city lights below. In the living room are two pretty women dressed for a special night out but, for the moment, sitting quietly and chatting. The strong horizontal pattern of the ceiling over their heads extends outside to the house's overhang.
The effect, though Hollywood gorgeous, is casual, a snapshot of the good life.
But, as with all of Shulman's work, nothing about taking this photograph was casual.
"He was doing a rush job of shooting the house the day before it was to have its debut," said Philip Ethington, a USC professor of history who interviewed Shulman extensively for an oral history. "He turned around and saw this scene."
To capture the image in the camera, however, Shulman had to essentially take two photographs at once -- one of the vista below, which required a time exposure, and one of the house, which required a flash.
Working quickly and without a light meter, Shulman shot a 7½-minute exposure of the city lights with his 4-by-5 camera.
"Then, when I felt I had given enough time for the exposure, and I wanted to flash the interior, I called to the girls," Shulman told Taina Rikala De Noriega for the Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution. "I said, 'Girls, sit up now and look pleasant. Look toward each other as if you're talking and hold still for just a second and the flash will go off.' I pressed the release. All this time the shutter was open and the flash illuminated the interior."
The result is, as UCLA's Hines said, a photograph that is both time-specific and timeless. With its scenic setting, romantic sensibility and strong perspective, it seems to capture the best of modernism.
"Modernism really was about a belief in a promising future, a belief that our problems could be solved easily by progress," said Craig Krull, whose gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica represents Shulman’s work. Krull said he saw the uplifting diagonal of Shulman's photograph, much like the fins on 1950s cars, as having an "optimistic flair."
Others, including Ethington, have seen something darker.
While conceding that the photo is both "comfortable and thrilling," he said it also has a "portentous feel of white, well-to-do women encased in a glass box above a dark and teeming city."
Shulman knew he had taken a great picture, but he could not have known how enduring it would be. First published on the cover of the Sunday Pictorial section of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner two months after it was taken, it would make architectural stars of both Shulman and Koenig. It has been reproduced countless times in books, magazines and newspapers.
"And suddenly Pierre Koenig becomes a hero, based on one picture," Shulman said of the photo he called "one of my masterpieces."
In time, the scene-stealing fame that came to Shulman with the picture grew to rankle the architect, who later became a professor at USC's School of Architecture and who died in April 2003.
"It's not just a photograph, it's the house too," said Koenig, who said he very consciously designed the house so its horizontal lines would echo the city's grid below.
Shulman's photographs were not without controversy. Some believed he made the structures look too beautiful.
He rearranged furniture to suit his perspective, brought in props and posed models in the frame. Sometimes he used filters or infrared film to make his photos look more dramatic and full of contrast.
He also would shoot through cut branches or pots of nursery plants to give the impression that a newly completed home was more fully landscaped.
Shulman was unapologetic about these tactics, saying he wasn't just taking pictures, he was "selling modernism."
"I sell architecture better and more directly and more vividly than the architect does," he said.
In his later years, the value of Shulman's photographs increased dramatically. Photos that in the past he had sold for $35 or $50 apiece began fetching, on the art market, $2,000 to $20,000 each.
Always generous with what he knew about his profession, Shulman for decades conducted seminars in photography at USC, UCLA and other universities. He was awarded the American Institute of Architecture's Gold Medal for architectural photography in 1969.
Shulman's home in the Hollywood Hills, designed by Soriano, was designated a monument by the L.A. Cultural Heritage Commission in 1987 as the only remaining unaltered steel-frame structure by the architect.
Though his shooting slowed down in his later years, Shulman continued taking assignments, working with his collaborator, Juergen Nogai, into his late 90s.
In 2005, the Getty Center announced that it had acquired Shulman’s archive of 260,000 negatives, prints and transparencies.
Shulman's first wife, Emma, died in 1973, and his second, Olga, died in 1999. He is survived by his daughter and a grandson, Timothy, both of Santa Barbara.