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Gaining Historic Perspective

In His New Book, Julius Shulman Puts His Architectural Photography Career in Focus


As soon as the photographer starts shooting, the wiry 88-year-old man behind the cluttered desk becomes as animated as a TV commercial, widening his eyes as he gesticulates at a vintage photograph of a home interior. After devoting most of his life to selling the potential of modern architecture, Julius Shulman isn't shy about mugging for the camera.

His usual position, though, is on the other side of the lens. It was Shulman's knack for showing off architects' ability to sculpt inviting living spaces that consistently landed his photographs on the glossy pages of dozens of magazines, from House Beautiful to Arts and Architecture.

During the '40s and '50s, Shulman immortalized the clean-lined, flat-roofed, glass-walled houses of Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Charles Eames and many others in pristine black-and-white images sometimes populated by chic women, cheerful children or handsome couples posing like movie stars on a set.

Shulman has just published "Julius Shulman: Architecture and Its Photography" (Taschen, $39.99), a stunning compendium of a lifetime of work accompanied by a folksy, often frankly boastful narrative. Tonight, Shulman--whose pointed remarks enlivened last summer's American Institute of Architects award presentation in Newport Beach--will return to Orange County to sign his book and talk about his work.

On a recent afternoon at his Hollywood Hills home--an airy steel-framed structure designed in 1949 by Raphael Soriano--Shulman shuffles through piles of his photographs dating back to 1936. Peering at elegant shots of homes by obscure architect Julius Ralph (J.R.) Davidson, the photographer seemed newly fascinated by evidence of his own early talent.

"Why did I go up on that roof and look down from the trellis?" Shulman wondered aloud. "What was it that made it possible to make these compositions? [Noted architecture historian] Esther McCoy said I had some indefinable quality in working with light."

Shulman figures his skill in capturing the effect of natural light--so finely honed that he didn't use a light meter in his work--had something to do with living on a Connecticut farm in his youth and spending much of his free time in later years hiking, camping and skiing.

Removing an old photograph of a sweet-faced woman from its honored position above his desk, Shulman sighed recalling his mother's patience with his youthful indecision.

Shulman said he just "drifted along" for seven years after enrolling at UCLA in 1929, toying briefly with the idea of majoring in geology and eventually auditing a smorgasbord of courses at UC Berkeley.

Amateur Shutterbug

Stumbled Into Career

On March 5, 1936, this unfocused life suddenly coalesced into a career, thanks to a Kodak "vest pocket" camera.

Neutra's new assistant, who was rooming with Shulman's sister, Shirley, had invited the young man to visit a new house in the Hollywood Hills. Wandering around with his camera while the assistant talked to the contractor, Shulman--an amateur shutterbug since his high-school days--idly shot a few images of the odd-looking bulk of Kun House.

The resulting photos came to Neutra's attention, and he requested copies of each print. Suddenly, as Shulman writes, he was a photographer.

Introduced to the young Soriano, a former Neutra assistant who by then was working on his own, Shulman found himself photographing the Greek-born architect's first house.

Despite their long association and Soriano's generally affable personality, Shulman said he had little patience for the architect's unbending attitude toward design.

"Fundamentalism in architecture and in religion is not that different," he said. "Soriano likened his modular system to the rhythm of Bach's music. But he forgot that, beyond the dada dada dada rhythm, Bach also had ornamentation."

In his latest book, Shulman relates a story about a couple who--in the middle of the Great Depression, when architects were scrounging for work--wanted Soriano to design a house. But when the woman pulled out magazine clippings of kitchens she liked, Soriano saw red. Offended at what he perceived as disregard for his talent, he ushered the couple out of his office.

As the middleman between uncompromising architects and trend-chasing magazine editors, Shulman couldn't afford to be rigid. Still, while avoiding arty shots that distort an architect's vision, he wanted to transcend the bare facts of a building's appearance.

"Why should I transcend the architect's design? Go beyond anything he anticipated? For a purpose," Shulman explained, brandishing a black-and-white photograph of a Davidson patio, with glassware sparkling in the afternoon sun.

"I said to J.R., 'Let's make a setting.' So I placed the [dining] table here and the chairs and had Greta, his wife, set the table for us. You can [imagine] them pouring the gazpacho or the onion soup. It would taste awfully good here. . . . This picture sells modernism."

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