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Julius Shulman dies at 98; celebrated photographer of Modernist architecture

Shulman died Wednesday at his L.A. home. One observer says he had 'a profound effect on the writing and teaching of architectural history ... especially Southern California modernism.'

July 17, 2009|Claudia Luther | Luther is a former Times staff writer.

Julius Shulman, whose luminous photographs of homes and buildings brought fame to a number of mid-20th century modernist architects and made him a household name in the architectural world, has died. He was 98.

Shulman, who had been in declining health, died Wednesday night at his home in Los Angeles, according to his daughter Judy McKee.

Starting with Richard Neutra in 1936, Shulman's roster of clients read like a who's who of pioneering contemporary architecture: Rudolf M. Schindler, Gregory Ain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, Raphael S. Soriano, John Lautner, Eero Saarinen, Albert Frey, Pierre Koenig, Harwell Harris and many others. His work was contained in virtually every book published on modernist architects.

"He has a sense of visual bravura of composition," wrote the late Robert Sobieszek, photography curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "so that he can take a rather mundane house and make it look exciting, and take a spectacular house and make it look triply spectacular."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 24, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
Julius Shulman obituary: The obituary of photographer Julius Shulman in the July 17 Section A said that his image of Case Study House #22 first appeared in the Sunday Pictorial section of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner two months after it was taken on May 9, 1960. The Sunday Pictorial was a feature of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper, which merged with the Herald Express in 1962. However, according to the Getty Research Institute, where Shulman's archives are kept, the photo first appeared in the June 1960 issue of Arts & Architecture magazine.

Shulman had "a profound effect on the writing and teaching of architectural history and understanding architecture, especially Southern California modernism," Thomas Hines, UCLA professor emeritus of architecture and urban design, once said.

And Newsweek magazine's Cathleen McGuigan wrote that some of Shulman's photographs of modern glass houses in Palm Springs and Los Angeles "are so redolent of the era in which they were built you can practically hear the Sinatra tunes wafting in the air and the ice clinking in the cocktail glasses."

After the Depression, Shulman's studio was one of three in the United States to which Arts & Architecture, Architectural Forum and other magazines turned to document the exciting new work being done in architecture.

Shulman's 1960 photograph of Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 -- a glass-walled, cantilevered structure hovering above the lights of Los Angeles, became one of the most famous architectural pictures ever taken in the United States. It was, as architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote in the New York Times, "one of those singular images that sum up an entire city at a moment in time."

But Shulman's work went well beyond merely taking beautiful pictures of houses and buildings. His mission was to use his photography to build the reputation of the architects who were bringing innovative design to the West. Indeed, his photographs were, by and large, all that most people would ever see of noted architects' works, many of which were later destroyed.

Neutra, whose association with Shulman lasted 34 years until the architect's death in 1970, acknowledged this.

"Film [is] stronger, and good glossy prints are easier [to] ship than brute concrete, stainless steel or even ideas," Neutra said.

Shulman was born Oct. 10, 1910, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. The family moved to a farm in Connecticut, where Shulman first developed a love of nature that, he said, awakened him to light and shadow and influenced his life's course.

When Julius was 10, his father moved the family to the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at that time was predominantly Jewish, and opened the New York Dry Goods Store. His father died of tuberculosis in 1923, leaving Julius' mother to run the business and raise five children.

After graduating from Roosevelt High School -- where he took what would be his only course in photography -- Shulman spent seven years as what he called an "academic drifter," auditing geology, philosophy and other courses at UCLA and UC Berkeley. He returned to Los Angeles without a degree and still unsure what he wanted to do.

He was by then, however, earning rent money from pictures he took at Berkeley with an Eastman box camera. And one photograph of the 6th Street Bridge over the L.A. River had won first prize in a national magazine competition.

It was a chance meeting with Neutra in March 1936 -- two weeks after Shulman left Berkeley -- that would open up the possibility of becoming an architectural photographer. A man who was renting a room from Shulman's sister, and who was working as a draftsman for Neutra, invited Shulman along one day to see Neutra's Kun house, which was under construction near Fairfax Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard.

As was his habit by then, Shulman took along a vest-pocket camera that was equipped with a bellows that unfolded.

"I had never seen a modern house before," Shulman said. It "intrigued me with its strange forms -- beyond any previous identity of a house in my experience."

Shulman developed a few of the pictures and sent them to the draftsman, who showed them to Neutra. The architect, then in his mid-40s, sent for young Shulman and ordered up more prints.

With Neutra's invitation to photograph other projects, Shulman was suddenly a professional architecture photographer.

"He had an eye for different angles," Neutra's son, Dion, told The Times in 2003. "My dad immediately saw that and mentored him into the field."

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