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The Eye by Barbara King

A clear vision of how we live

May 15, 2003|Barbara King


Fans show up unannounced at his door asking for autographs or to shake his hand.

The phone rings all day long, calls from every continent: architects, photographers, documentary makers, TV producers, magazine editors, journalists, university presidents, city officials. Most of his books in print are sold out, including his $150 book on Neutra, and his autobiography is dangerously close to being unavailable.

"Everybody wants a piece of my action," says "the Great Shulman," as he is popularly known throughout the world.

At 92, he is amused, and more than a little bit thrilled, at his status as the matinee idol of architectural photography. After 67 years at his craft he has earned the right to hold court at his studio high up in Laurel Canyon, but the public kudos and the reverential homage are by no means empty.

Shulman is the man who brought modern architecture to the people: He showed us, definitively, how to look at houses and interiors.

It was not what the camera caught, per se; it was what his singular eye perceived. He always looked for the statement that had "meat to it, real juice," he says, to create impact -- and create impact he did, portraying in wide shots through doorways into rooms and out windows again exactly how the house connected to the environment. He saw, very literally, the big picture.

With his brilliantly composed, light-infused black and white images, Shulman also single-handedly conveyed the optimistic spirit of mid-century modernism in Southern California to the world at large.

One image in particular -- Pierre Koenig's Case Study House # 22 -- has been published more than any other in the history of modern architecture. What Shulman playfully describes as "two good-looking girls in a glass box overlooking the Hollywood Hills" has become the iconic architectural photograph of the 20th century, perfectly capturing the glorious promise of the city. It communicates good design, good living, a good environment: It all comes together in one magnificent, seminal picture.

In thousands of assignments during his career, Shulman has photographed the work of international giants of the mid- and late 20th century. In a letter to the young Shulman (blown up poster size and hanging above archival files) Frank Lloyd Wright wrote that no better photos had ever been taken of Taliesin.

The much older Shulman is proud to show off that letter, as he is a signed sketch by Frank Gehry and any number of picturesque accouterments of a life well-traveled and well-lived. He loves found objects, as he calls his rocks and shells and petrified wood, and he has developed a fondness for toys, mainly cars and trucks.

Last weekend I visited him for the second time, and he greeted me at his front door in a natty red shirt and Marilyn Monroe suspenders, his eyes as alert and fiery as they were in a framed high school photo of him in the living room. He still doesn't need reading glasses.

His voice is quick and strong, and his conversation ranges over so many topics it can leave less experienced guests in the dust. Over a dinner of sand dabs preceded by 12-year-old scotch and, as an afterthought, white gourmet popcorn with parmesan, he talked about modernists, Martha Stewart, his two acres of tamed jungle, bad photography, good photography, butter knives, Doonesbury and the etymology of words. In the first 20 minutes.

I was just one in a stream of visitors to his landmark steel-frame house, designed in 1950 by Raphael Soriano and the last of its kind to remain standing. Only last week, 56 architects from Spain spent hours with the Great Shulman, wandering in and out of rooms and up and down the thickly wooded garden path.

It's true: Everybody wants a part of Shulman's action. The public is being awakened to the profound significance of architecture and interior as it affects their daily lives, and to the integral relationship they have with ecology and the surrounding environment, and Shulman is happily, excitedly, there to guide them along.

"That phone never stops ringing," he says.

Barbara King, editor of the Home section, can be reached at

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