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A photographic memory

Julius Shulman's photographs of West Coast Modernist architecture introduced it to the rest of the world. Seven decades later, he's still finding the soul of the homes' design.

March 03, 2005|By Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer
  • Julius Shulman first captured the Fitzpatrick House on film in 1937.
Julius Shulman first captured the Fitzpatrick House on film in 1937. (Julius Shulman / J. Paul…)

It's 10 o'clock, and the tri-level Modernist mini-manse near the crest of Laurel Canyon Boulevard is swathed in sharp morning sunlight, the Rudolf M. Schindler design aglow against a sky of L.A. blue. It seems a perfect picture, but the photographer in the frontyard knows it's not. At least not yet.

"You see the bottom of this?" Julius Shulman says to associate Juergen Nogai, tracing his finger along a Polaroid test picture, then pointing to the driveway. "Crop it here. We don't need that. Yeah, we have to be tighter."

A Times photographer soon becomes the next object of Shulman's instruction. "Be sure to get Juergen with me," Shulman says, in a friendly tone, but still as though he's speaking to an assistant.

Enter the dogs. Chuck and Brian — affable Corgi mixes and residents of the house — saunter onto a second floor balcony, heads cocked quizzically, unaware that they too are about to be put to work.

"Oh, that's nice! Just stay right where you are," commands Shulman, waving his finger as Chuck retreats to a nearby chaise. "No, no!" he yells as Brian starts to follow. "Stay! There. Right. Stay."

And to no one's surprise, the dog obeys.

At 94, the grandfather of architectural photography in California still commands respect from seemingly everyone — and everything — around him. Warm, witty, occasionally impatient but almost always cordial, Shulman still speaks with authority, with an abundance of implied italics, as if to offer listeners every last bit of emphasis. Ask about a photo shoot and he snaps, "Listen, it's not a shoot. I'm not a hunter. I'm a photographer. I do photography."

When the J. Paul Getty Trust announced in January that it had purchased Shulman's archive spanning 68 years — a trove of 260,000 negatives, transparencies and prints, including celebrated images of Modernist architecture by Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner — many assumed that, with his legacy secure, the photographer would retire. Rest. Relax.

But here he is, cane in hand, eye behind lens, documenting the 1936-built Fitzpatrick House off Woodrow Wilson Drive, a home that Shulman first photographed almost seven decades ago. The reason for his return: a renovation that has brought back much of Schindler's classic design, including a stunning bank of floor-to-ceiling living room windows that one prior owner, entertainer Martha Raye, inexplicably had replaced with sheetrock.

The photographer and the house are a fitting match. As the two spend more time together, one truth becomes increasingly clear. The home, through all of its permutations, is a fine metaphor for Shulman himself — enduring, endearing and, most of all, still evolving.

Inside the Fitzpatrick House, it's hard to believe the man directing the action fell into his profession largely by chance. The year developer Clifton Fitzpatrick and architect Schindler started construction, Shulman was in his seventh year of "majoring in nothing" at UCLA, then UC Berkeley.

But in 1936, the legend goes, he happened to meet a boarder in his sister's Los Angeles home. The boarder happened to be Neutra's assistant. And the assistant happened to show Neutra some snapshots Shulman had taken of the architect's Kun House, an angular hillside cube near Fairfax Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. And Neutra happened to like the photos. And ?

"March 5, 1936 — I remember the day — we shook hands for the first time," Shulman says. "I met Richard Neutra, and that was the day I became a photographer."

In those early years, he used only a rudimentary Kodak vest pocket camera on a tripod with natural light — no flash. Architects loved his work because it celebrated theirs: the purely horizontal floor, perfectly vertical walls, the play of light and shadow.

Shulman wasn't alone in developing the art of architectural photography, says Thomas S. Hines, professor of cultural, urban and architectural history at UCLA. He cites Marvin Rand in Southern California, Morley Baer in the Bay Area and, on the East Coast, Ezra Stoller, best known for photographing Richard Meier's early work. But, Hines says, Shulman still ranks as "one of the best in the world of the 20th century."

Wim de Wit, head of special collections and architectural curator at the Getty Research Institute in Brentwood, says Shulman started his career at a time when much of the nation didn't think of L.A. as a place of art or culture. His photos of a maturing California that appeared in Arts and Architecture, Life and other magazines and newspapers affected perceptions among the intellectual elite as well as the masses.

"People on the East Coast didn't know what a Neutra or what a Schindler was doing out here. He was making their work known to the world at large," De Wit says. "He also made people understand that Modern architecture wasn't necessarily bad or cold. He showed how it could be quite livable. His pictures helped people understand how the buildings worked."

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