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Building His Career Was a Snap : Architectural Photographer Launched Profession in '36

September 11, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Times Urban Design Critic

When Julius Shulman began taking his exquisitely composed photographs of man-made structures about 50 years ago, there was no such vocational description as architectural photographer.

If an architect or a builder wanted a "professional" photograph of a particular project for a portfolio or a publication, they usually contacted a commercial photographer or took it themselves.

Then, in 1936, 26-year-old Shulman, fresh from UC Berkeley and with a love of his adopted Los Angeles and fascinated by photography, pointed his newly acquired vest-pocket Kodak camera at a recently constructed house in the Hollywood foothills designed by Richard Neutra.

Other Assignments

The resulting photographs were shown to the renowned architect, who liked them, bought them and asked Shulman to take more. Other assignments followed from other architects making their mark in Los Angeles, and Shulman's hobby soon became his career.

What Shulman did in the subsequent years on assignment for a roster of leading architects and interior designers, and for just about every design journal and numerous magazines, was no less than to create an art form.

If anything distinguishes Shulman's photographs, it is their composition and how they are illuminated. He uses light to express the essence of man-made structures in much the same way and with the same genius the late Ansel Adams did with nature.

While he has traveled the world on assignments, Shulman has maintained a special focus on Los Angeles, which has been his home since 1920, when his family moved here from eastern Connecticut. For the last 36 years, he has lived in and personally and elaborately landscaped a Hollywood Hills house designed by Raphael Soriano.

Of all the periods of architecture that Los Angeles has experienced and that Shulman has documented on film, he says the most exciting was the '50s. "It was a glorious period in Los Angeles' history, in terms of the care and detailing that went into design," Shulman said in a recent interview.

Shulman will reminisce about the '50s in an abundantly illustrated lecture next Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Transamerica Building, 12th and Hill streets.

The lecture will be part of a celebration of the '50s organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy that includes--in addition to the illustrated lecture by Shulman--a tour the following weekend of some of the more outstanding houses designed during the period. Those interested in attending should contact the conservancy by telephoning (213) 623-CITY.

Shulman noted that in the '50s, in addition to Neutra and Soriano, those practicing architecture in Los Angeles included such pioneers of the modern style as Rudolph Schindler, Gregory Ain and Harwell Harris. He avoided, with a smile, mentioning any favorites.

"They had divergent styles and artistic egos then, just like architects do now," Shulman said. But he added what made them different from some of the architectural stars of today was their prime concern to please their clients, "not an AIA (American Institute of Architects) jury or an ephemeral publication." He dismissed some of today's more publicized structures as "facade architecture."

It was a remark of a professional who does not have to worry about his next assignment. With a wall decorated with dozens of awards and commendations, including a coveted medal for photography from the AIA, and as the author of the definitive "The Photography of Architecture and Design" (Whitney Library of Design, $27.50), Shulman continues to be in demand.

'Fees Have Changed'

"Of course, my fees have changed a bit" he observed, noting he received $2 apiece for the photographs he took in 1936 of the Neutra-designed house, compared to $2,500, plus liberal expenses, from a corporation for a photograph of its headquarters for a cover of an annual report.

But Shulman was quick to add that his fee schedule varies, depending on the age and accomplishments of the architects involved. He has been known to donate his time and talent to photograph student projects that have captured his fancy, and to allow such nonprofit organizations as the conservancy to reprint his photographs at no cost.

Also in demand by book and magazine editors and curators and historians is Shulman's photo collection, the size of which even he cannot estimate. "Just give me the name of any architect, any year within the last 50, and I should have a photograph," he said with pride.

Shulman holds on to images, mementoes and memories with a sure and affectionate hand. Rummaging through his studio he produced, among other things, a photograph of the 6th Avenue bridge over the Los Angeles River, which won him his first award 50 years ago, and a letter from Frank Lloyd Wright, complimenting him on his work.

The letter prompted Shulman to talk about the art of architectural photography. "You have to consider the building's siting. That is most important; then what distinguishes it; what is it to do?" he mused. "But first that feeling for the siting, how you are going to point the camera, must come from the heart."

Shulman added that almost always when he has taken on an assignment, the architect or owner comments that the building is hard to photograph. "I tell them 'don't tell me a building is hard to photograph. You're talking to Uncle Julius.' "

Next Wednesday, "Uncle Julius" will be doing the talking. It should be a delight.

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