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APPRECIATION

Julius Shulman's photos promoted the idea of modern Southern California living

The photographer of modernist architecture considered himself a booster for Los Angeles, turning boosterism into an art form.

July 17, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

If Southern California and its culture were built on salesmanship, Julius Shulman sold the place as well as anyone.

The hugely influential architectural photographer, who died Wednesday at 98, turned snapshots of the region's buildings -- in particular, Modernist houses by Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner and others -- into crisply alluring campaigns for life in sunny, cosmopolitan and forward-looking Los Angeles.

If that makes him appear as much businessman as visionary -- well, Shulman himself confronted that very suggestion over the years and rarely voiced more than a smiling, half-hearted objection to it. He would tell you without hesitation that he was a booster for Los Angeles -- and, indeed, when a generation of photographers who favored grittier depictions of the city came along in the 1970s, he didn't try to hide his disdain for their approach.

What he wouldn't say -- since promotion rather than self-promotion was his preferred mode of making his way in the world -- is that he turned boosterism into an art form. In the bargain, he changed the course not only of Los Angeles history but also of the architectural profession.

His career dovetailed neatly with the rise of residential modern architecture as a consumable art form -- a product to be ogled, and dreamed about, as surely as any model in the pages of a fashion magazine. He ought to be recognized as the man who made Dwell magazine and Design Within Reach possible. And maybe even the world-famous, globe-trotting class of designers known as starchitects.

Shulman's vision of modern, stylish domesticity was in many respects an airbrushed one. It's hard to believe anybody actually ever lived the way the carefully posed models in his photographs seemed to, carrying a tray out onto a poolside terrace, or sitting in perfectly pressed suits and dresses on the edge of a Mies van der Rohe chaise longue, city lights twinkling in the distance.

But his images were impossible to resist as a kind of mythmaking, even for the most tough-minded observers of life in Los Angeles. To look for any length of time at a Shulman picture of a great modern L.A. house is to get a little drunk on the idea of paradise as an Edenic combination of spare architecture and lush landscape.

There was certainly nothing insincere about Shulman's efforts to promote the notion that such a lifestyle was easily acquired in Southern California in the decades after World War II. He himself lived in idyllic and architecturally pedigreed surroundings, in a steel-framed house he commissioned from Raphael Soriano.

The city and the profession of architecture are both still grappling with the legacy of Shulman's images. Think about his most famous picture, showing a pair of models sitting in the glass-enclosed living room of Koenig's Case Study House No. 22, a structure that cantilevers daringly out from a hillside above Hollywood.

Aside from displaying all the Shulman trademarks -- the crisp, light energy of the architectural lines, the slightest suggestion of voyeurism -- the picture also makes clear all the ways his work helped pry modern architecture loose from the demands of the city and from the sense of social mission that inspired its European pioneers in the early years of the 20th century.

In Europe, modernism, at least in its youth, was inextricably tied to concerns about urbanism and low-cost housing. In California, Shulman's iconic pictures argued, it was burdened with no such obligations. The new architecture was, instead, a portal to freedom from the dust and chaos of old-fashioned cities, with their old-fashioned problems. What the pictures didn't show, of course, was the network of subsidized freeways, filled with oversized, pollution-belching cars and trucks, that made such freedom possible.

Except when they did. Two years ago, an exhibition at the Central Library downtown organized by Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander of the Getty Research Institute, which acquired Shulman's archive in 2005, shed new light on the photographer's work by focusing on his pictures of huge urban-renewal projects.

These little-known postwar pictures, many shot from a top-down perspective in contrast to the low, almost shin-high angle of his most famous domestic photographs, showed Bunker Hill and other inconveniently steep features of the city's topography being leveled by tractors and earthmovers to make way for ambitious public-works and grand civic projects.

Many of these images were produced for brochures touting redevelopment efforts downtown, in Century City and elsewhere. In that sense they were as patently promotional as his residential work. But now that they qualify as historical photographs, they serve a different function: as documentary evidence of a city changing so rapidly that its residents could barely chart the transformation.

There is a timeless quality to Shulman's best domestic photography that picks up, and strengthens, modern architecture's own interest in standing out of time. When he came down from the hills into the heart of the city, however, Shulman was smart -- and honest -- enough to know that a different approach was required.

Those more muscular and bigger-scaled photographs show that when called on, he was as capable of capturing a city in chaotic flux as one in glamorous, carefree repose.

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christopher.hawthorne @latimes.com

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