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Hello again, Mr. Shulman

After she spots her childhood home in a volume of the photographer's work, she seeks him out -- and rediscovers her life on Inwood Drive.

March 03, 2005|Judy Graeme | Special to The Times

My chance encounter with Julius Shulman began when my architect friend Lisa called. "I think your old house is in this new Julius Shulman book," she said. "Come by and check it out." Lisa knew about my affection for my childhood home in the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley. My parents bought the lot in the early '50s. They adored architect Calvin Straub's post-and-beam home in Pasadena and commissioned Buff, Straub and Hensman to design a split-level version in Sherman Oaks. Straub hired landscape architect Emmet Wemple, who later helped to design the grounds at the Getty Center. We moved in when I was 3. I had not been back since I was 17, but I often pined for that house on Inwood Drive.

On Page 266 of "Modernism Rediscovered," two images were snatched right out of my memory. One showed the glassed-in living room on Inwood Drive frozen in a simpler time, before my parents' marriage disintegrated, before a heart attack took my father at age 47 on the cusp of my first year at Grant High. The other was an exterior shot of the hidden patio, with my mother and me sitting on a slat bench beside our Siamese cat, Burma.

The existence of these photographs was not news to me. I remember the day in 1959 when Shulman came to Sherman Oaks. He spent the whole day, shooting inside and out. He photographed me and a little friend as we watched TV in the family room.

I bought the book and studied the two scenes. This was the home where my parents entertained so proudly, the conversation piece I showed off to friends, the safe haven where my mother flourished as an artist and I became inspired to try photography. My first kiss came at the front door after a concert at the Troubadour. Unfortunately, memories lose vividness with time. Shulman's images were crisp and delivered a jolt. I needed to see more.

Lisa's late father had been an architect, and her mother knew Shulman well enough to give me his number in the Hollywood Hills. He answered after one or two rings and listened courteously to my story. Four decades had passed, but he remembered the house on Inwood Drive. I finally popped the question: Could I possibly buy prints? He said "Of course" and invited me to his studio to inspect proofs.

Two weeks later I drove to Shulman's home. I expected a cursory transaction, but he showed me to a table and said to take my time. When I looked down, there was my life etched in perfectly lighted black-and-white images from Feb. 4, 1959.

Have you ever wished you could replay a fragment of your life, just to freshen and adjust errant memories? In the images before me, I was 5 years old again but seeing certain things for the first time. In one photo, I'm sitting in a corner of my bedroom, the dolls I had long forgotten aligned on a shelf. My bed is covered in a plaid spread I would have sworn never existed. In the shot of me playing in my sandbox, the garden is immaculate, not unkempt as I remembered it. My parents' bedroom loft where I would eavesdrop on party chatter looks bare, probably styled for the photograph.

The photos stirred my heart. I never had gotten up the courage to visit Inwood Drive since my mother, struggling to start a new business as a graphic artist, was forced to sell. This was almost like visiting again.

Shulman showed great respect, even though my house was just one of hundreds he photographed. He seemed to enjoy helping me connect to the past. Before I left, he graciously signed my book. I asked for as many of the pictures as I could afford. He promised they would be ready in a few weeks.

When I returned to Shulman's studio, he greeted me at the door: "You'll never guess who's here!" Don Hensman, the last surviving architect from the firm that designed my house, was selecting photographs to use in his own book. He remembered cocktail parties at Inwood Drive and reminisced about landscape architect Wemple, who became my father's sailing buddy and close friend.

Shortly after meeting Shulman, I went back to Inwood Drive for the first time. My husband, daughter and I drove up the street one weekend and came upon a new owner unpacking boxes. He invited us in.

Years of use and changing styles had stripped away the midcentury modern elan that Shulman captured so well. I saw the house through more mature eyes. It wasn't just smaller, as grown-ups almost always discover about the children's world they lived in. It also wasn't mine anymore. What makes a house is who lives there, and I had moved on. Leaving, I felt more at peace about the old place than I had in decades. I also had something more tangible: The new owner had tiles to discard and asked if I wanted to see them. Inside the sack were ceramic squares I remembered my mother designing for the kitchen.

My Julius Shulman photographs are treasures I keep on a shelf in an inconspicuous black portfolio. Friends ask why I don't hang them on the wall. But I don't need to see them every day. We don't always need our past staring right at us. Sometimes it's just nice to know it's there when we want to visit.

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