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Design 2000

At 90, Still Building on His Art

Julius Shulman looms large as the architectural photographer who chronicled the California lifestyle.

November 16, 2000|IRENE LACHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the prime architects of the California dream is a 90-year-old guy who's lining up a schedule that would tax a baby boomer: Julius Shulman has mapped out plans for his next two books, and he's contemplating his winter vacation--a cross-country skiing trip to Mammoth. But don't think Shulman is blind to his limitations. He gave up downhill skiing last year because he was beginning to get a little wobbly. You understand.

"I'm only middle age," Shulman says. "I'm a fervent observer of the life of Methuselah."

Indeed, Shulman has surprisingly smooth cheeks and a snappy memory. Considered the most important architectural photographer of the West Coast, he gives the impression of being nearly as nimble as he was when he first fixed his lens on the masterpieces of California Modernism. When it comes to the making of the California myth, Shulman has been the man behind the curtain--or more to the point, behind the focusing cloth. Shulman's California was a postwar dream of clean living, and while he may not be a household name, his images of the promise of suburban bliss have had an enormous impact on America's idea of its own frontier.

Many of Shulman's photographs of the work of such iconic architects as Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Pierre Koenig and John Lautner have been published hundreds of times in magazines and books and are burned into the collective consciousness. Probably the most famous is Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22, one of a series of homes commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine in the 1950s as models for efficient postwar living.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday November 20, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong location--A photo caption Thursday misidentified the location of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22. It is in the Hollywood Hills above Crescent Heights Boulevard.

Shulman's 1960 black-and-white photo of the Koenig house, showing two women idling in a glass-box living room overlooking a carpet of lights, is one of the most published photographs of residential architecture.

"Julius just has lived so long," says Robert Timme, dean of USC's School of Architecture. "If you live 200 years and do the same thing well, someone will discover you're really good. And his career spans Modernism. Now we're looking back at that time, and Julius was there."

And now Shulman, too, is having a deja vu. He recently went back through his extensive archives to exhume striking examples of Modernism that are not well-known, such as work by William Pereira, Gordon Drake, William Sutherland Beckett and Iowa's Ray Crites. The result is "Modernism Rediscovered," a collaboration by the photographer with UC Berkeley architectural historian Pierluigi Serraino, which has just come off the presses of Cologne, Germany-based art book publisher Benedikt Taschen.

Evidence of a Notable Career

"The timing is perfect in my life," Shulman says. He's sitting behind the desk of the flat-roofed studio that his good friend, architect Raphael Soriano, designed for him in the Hollywood Hills in 1950. Around him, the evidence of a remarkable career is neatly filed in drawers and on shelves, stacked against walls and noted in palm-size planners dating to the Depression. The first camera he used professionally, his Eastman Kodak Vest Pocket camera with a bellows that unfolds like a Murphy bed, is at easy reach in the bottom right-hand drawer of his desk. He likes to aim it at his audiences when he starts a lecture.

"I couldn't have planned it any better," Shulman continues. "I went to university for seven years, never majored in anything. I never graduated. Two weeks after I came back from Berkeley in 1936, middle of February, I met Neutra by the fact that I took snapshots of the Neutra Kun House. And the young man I was with, who I met through my older sister, had shown me the house. I'd never seen a modern house before.

"I made 8-by-10 prints, sent them to this fellow, and the next thing I know he calls and says, 'Oh, I showed the pictures to Mr. Neutra. He wants to meet you this coming Saturday.' It was March 5, 1936.

"Apparently I was already ordained by whatever forces--mysticism, karma. You can put any label on it. I go back to when I was 5 years old, living on a farm in Central Village, Conn. I used to wander around the farm and the woods. My two brothers and two sisters didn't do that. I was the only one of five children who was ordained, if you will, to become something more than just a salesman or doctor, to become a photographer of architecture. And I'm still there. Look at what's happening in my life. Taschen considers me a member of his family. I like that because he has a 22-year-old daughter." His voice drops to a whisper. "And she's beautiful." Shulman, twice widowed, chuckles impishly.

The photographer's collaboration with Neutra over the next several decades became the stuff of legend, and it's celebrated in another new book by Taschen, mostly illustrated with Shulman's photographs: "Richard Neutra: The Complete Works," with text by Barbara Lamprecht.

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