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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Julius Shulman: Master Of Architecture

The late Julius Shulman was at the vanguard of architectural photography

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On July 15, 2009, famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman passed away at the age of 98. He had rubbed elbows with the who’s who of 20th-century architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Rudolph Schindler, Pierre Koenig and John Lautner. His ability to translate their architectural achievements into a two-dimensional medium by his use of light and choice of angle has assured him a place in the pantheon of photographers.

Unlike many artists, Shulman was able to enjoy the accolades of his efforts during his lifetime. This is no Van Gogh story. He lived in a Hollywood Hills mid-century house he had designed by Soriano (in 1987, the Shulman House was designated a monument by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission). His awards included the American Institute of Architecture’s Gold Medal for Architectural Photography. He was the subject of the award-winning documentary film Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, directed by Eric Bricker and narrated by Dustin Hoffman. In 2005, the Getty Center celebrated the acquisition of Shulman’s archive of 260,000 negatives, prints and transparencies with the exhibition “Julius Shulman, Modernity and the Metropolis.” In early 2009, Shulman was in attendance to see his photos on display at the inaugural exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. His images can be studied and enjoyed in coffee-table books, including a magnificent large-format, three-volume box set published by Taschen in 2000, Julius Shulman: Modernism Rediscovered.

But Shulman has done far more than photograph the 20th century’s most dynamic and innovative architecture. He has taught us how to do it. His book Photographing Architecture and Interiors, first published in 1962 by Whitney Library of Design, is the bible for architectural photographers. Digital Photo Pro sat down with Mr. Shulman at the dawn of the 21st century at his home in the Hollywood Hills, as the Balcony Press edition of the book was published.

DPP: You’ve had one of the longest and most successful careers in photography. How have you kept active for so long?

Julius Shulman: I tell young people all the time when I lecture, “What’s your hurry?” They talk about expanding even before they have a business. I have friends that had organizations—photographers, craftspeople—they expanded too much and burned themselves out. I grew up on a farm in eastern Connecticut out in the woods. I came out to Los Angeles with my family in 1920 when I was 10 years old. When I was 12, I joined the Boy Scouts, and my life in the outdoors began again full bore, which has never changed. In fact, at one point in my life, I wanted to be a forest ranger. So I think I’ve really learned from the balanced rhythm of nature.

The secret of being freelance is to be free. Then you can toss the lance and have the freedom to go wherever it lands.

DPP: Considering your love of nature, what made you decide to go into architectural photography instead of landscape photography?

Shulman: I didn’t decide anything. It was decided for me. I had a little Kodak Vest Pocket camera that was given to me in 1933 for my 23rd birthday. I started taking snapshots four years earlier. I had enrolled in UCLA in 1929 in engineering school. I was a ham radio operator, and I was inter-ested in electrical things. At that time, photography was the furthest thing from my mind. I was at UCLA for five years, and then Berkeley for two more because a friend of mine was going up there to get his masters in social studies. I had a seven-year hiatus in my life, having no idea what I wanted to do. In Berkeley, I had an apartment with my friend where I set up a little enlarger, and I’d develop my Kodak negatives and make 8x10 prints of the old buildings on the campus and sell them at the bookstore. At Berkeley, I audited a few classes, spent a lot of time in the gym swimming and playing basketball, and wandered around the campus. It didn’t take much to live on in those days because rent was $25 a month, which we split, and I was making a few dollars selling my pictures. I framed them by taping a piece of glass to a photo mounted on matte board. The pictures sold for two-fifty a piece.

Toward the end of February 1936, I asked myself, “What am I doing here? I’ve been going to college for seven years, I have no major and no idea what I want to do with my life.” Since I love nature and the outdoors, I had even at one time had the fleeting thought of getting a job working as a gardener in Griffith Park. I was so removed from having any concept of what I should do with my future. So I moved back to L.A., and two weeks later, my sister Shirley Bear who was an acquaintance of Dione Neutra, wife of architect Richard Neutra, introduced me to a young man who worked for him. Mrs. Neutra had asked my sister if she had a room to rent him, which she did. I went along with this young man to one of Neutra’s houses [the Kun House, 1936] that he was working on and took a few snapshots. I didn’t know I was photographing a Neutra house. I gave this fellow the photos, which he showed to Neutra, who loved them and wanted to meet me, which we did on March 5, 1936. The date is indelibly imprinted in my mind.


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