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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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Possibly the best-known and most highly regarded architectural photographer of all time, Julius Shulman passed away in 2009. His legacy endures, however, and the genre that was his passion both personally and professionally for so long will feel the influence of Shulman for years to come. Taschen’s retrospective on Shulman, Modernism Rediscovered, is a beautiful collection of his photography. In 2009, he was one of the photographers featured at the inauguration of the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles as part of the “L8S ANG3LES” show.
Neutra ordered more pictures and had me meet Soriano, who was doing his first house. I became a photographer that day. I had never met an architect before in my life, let alone Neutra of all people. What sparked that? People have pointed out the irony that I started out taking pictures for the architects who were the pioneers in modern architecture. By 1937, besides Neutra, I had already met Schindler, Gregory Ain, J.R. Davidson and Soriano, and I was a photographer for them.

DPP: At what point did you make the switch to a larger-format camera?

Shulman: I did my first assignments with the Vest Pocket Kodak camera that created a 25⁄8x13⁄4-inch negative. The Vest Pocket did produce some darn good, sharp images. The Kun House, for instance, was shot with the Vest Pocket. But I realized its limitations. You couldn’t have a large negative to work with and, more importantly, you couldn’t make corrections with bellows. In architectural photography, the main reason for using the 4x5 is to avoid distortion of the vertical elements of a building. So I acquired an old 4x5 camera and created “field trips” for practice. In the late 1930s, I obtained a new Eastman Master View Camera that was the first monorail view camera. Since then, I’ve worked with the Sinar camera system and then
the Horseman.

DPP: People have said, incorrectly, that architectural photographers have an advantage because their subject matter doesn’t move.

Shulman: I used to go around the country giving seminars for architects on how to photograph their buildings since photography is the lifeblood of their profession. We went to visit a Baptist church in Tulsa, Okla., that Bruce Goff designed when he was 23 years old. He had been studying with Frank Lloyd Wright and decided that he had had enough and he would begin his own work. Everybody loves this building, just like in Los Angeles everybody loves the Bradbury Building, which is a masterpiece.

I guided my timing to the second when the sun would be optimum. We went there in the morning to photograph the eastern side of the building, then we came around to the west after an early lunch because I knew by 12 or so the sun would come around from the southeast, south, then west at that time of the year. We got there before the sun had come around. I walked over and I put my hand on a sculpture figure. There was no sun on it at that time, and then as I was speaking, the sun crept around—speaking of drama: “Look at the thin shadows; the photo is taken only when the delineation of the forms, the incising of the stonework by the sculpture is revealed, but not to allow the shadows to get too heavy, otherwise the shadows will cover the rest of the sculpture.” There’s nothing secret about this. It’s a matter of common sense. “Forget the camera, leave it in your bag, we’re going to delineate this building as if Bruce Goff were here and drawing it on a piece of paper.” He would draw in the shadows the way he wanted them to be. I said to the architects, “Be sure when you have your photographers photograph your buildings, you transmit what’s in your mind, what’s in God’s mind, who regulates the position of the sun.” I always say without too much joking, God is one of my assistants. Look at the shadows. All photography is a matter of timing.

DPP: So you feel there’s a “decisive moment” in architectural photography?

Shulman: Oh, yes, in every picture I’ve ever taken. The picture in the Yucatán of the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, for example. Look at the texture of the stonework there. The subject is moving because the earth is rotating, and we must carefully observe the position of the sun. Shadows delineate structures and give them dimension.

DPP: Besides shooting at the optimal time of day, what are some of the techniques that have helped you achieve your photographic vision?

Shulman: I think one of the biggest reasons for my success is my ability to balance indoor/outdoor exposures. When I did interiors and I had to balance interiors and exteriors, I used flash bulbs. There were different-sized flash bulbs, and I would use daylight-balanced Ektachrome film to balance with the outdoors in those days. There were three different bulbs—11, 22 and 50—made by Westinghouse, General Electric and Sylvania. If I needed a large area to be illuminated, I’d use the 50, which was a large flash bulb, and if it was a subtle little area, I’d use the small number 11 flash bulb. A good carpenter doesn’t have just a one-sided chisel. It was very time-consuming because, after an exposure, you’d have to let the bulbs cool or use a hot mitt to replace the bulbs. A floodlight wouldn’t be strong enough to balance to the outdoors. The secret to the success of my photography is to always create a proper balance of light. Put your camera down. Don’t act like a photographer; act like a human being reviewing a piece of sculpture, a piece of art, and understand where you’d like the light to be for your exposure.

DPP: Do you have a favorite architect?

Shulman: In terms of creative ability, Frank Lloyd Wright. As time passes, the image of Frank Lloyd Wright is still with us more than any other architect. Mies van der Rohe is famous for his modern architecture and, Neutra, yes. But Frank Lloyd Wright goes on forever. Wright is respected for the physical quality of his work and his thorough design—interiors, exteriors, lighting, fixtures, furniture. I saw a picture of a house he did in 1909. I don’t like to use the term “understated” about the interiors, but it was a nice quiet use of furniture he selected or designed. He did the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and became a hero all over the world when the building survived the massive earthquake of 1923. I saw the original pictures, and the buildings are beautiful. No two Frank Lloyd Wright houses were ever alike. He adopted a design to fit the needs.


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