Owen Edwards | Essays

Remembering Julius Shulman

Julius Shulman photographing Case Study House No. 22 by Pierre Koenig, 1960

I was lucky enough, a couple of years ago, to be asked by Taschen Books to write the introduction for Modernism Rediscovered, a three-book set of Julius Shulman’s architectural photography that represents the definitive visual record of mid-century modern work by such masters as Neutra, Soriano, Niemeyer and the Eameses. Shulman died recently at the age of 98, still at work almost to the end. Though he’d had a long and successful life, he seemed to me to be one of those people who deserved at least another busy decade.

As a photography critic and a fan of modern architecture I was very familiar with many of Shulman’s iconic images, but I had never met the man himself, so my editor at Taschen, Nina Wiener, asked me to fly down from San Francisco to spend some time at the photographer’s house in Laurel Canyon.

Nina picked me up at LAX and we drove first to a See’s Candy store, where she bought two-layer box of cream-filled chocolates. “Julius loves these things,” she explained. Then we stopped a few doors away at one of those cavernous Jewish deli restaurants found only in New York and Los Angeles. There the counterman built a couple of four-inch high pastrami sandwiches, one for me and one for Julius.

We wound our way up Laurel Canyon, through pungent groves of towering eucalyptus trees, finally pulling into the driveway of the handsome glass and wood house designed for Shulman in the fifties by Rafael Soriano. Nina led the way to the part of the house that served as Shulman’s studio and office. Even though the Getty bought a quarter of a million images from the photographer, there still seemed to be plenty of material piled up on every flat surface in the room.

On the verge of his 96th birthday, Shulman was physically somewhat frail, but his handshake was firm and his eyes had the intensity of someone a couple of generations younger. He seemed pleased to meet me; or perhaps his pleasure came with receiving a box of chocolates, which he immediately opened and began eating — this at about ten thirty in the morning. I made some lame joke about how eating candy at that hour could kill him.

One of the annoying inevitabilities of an interview with someone who has had a long career is that a writer has to ask a lot of questions the interviewee has heard, and answered, countless times before. But Julius never showed any impatience. He talked enthusiastically about the way he stumbled into his career photographing revolutionary residences when a friend showed some of his hobbyist pictures to Richard Neutra, who hired him to do more. He led me to the studio wall where he’d hung a framed letter from Frank Lloyd Wright, expressing surprise that Shulman had turned out to be quite good after all (or words to that effect) in a condescending tone that confirmed what I’d always suspected about Ayn Rand’s favorite architect. “He seemed surprised that a mere photographer could do good work,” he said.

Julius showed me some early snapshots, including one of himself as an athletic young man gracefully swan diving into a lake somewhere. Time tends to be cruel to all of us, but it was easy to see that young athlete in the energetic old master. Throughout our interview, the phone rang frequently. Though he had an assistant in the office, Shulman would answer it himself, and talk with editors calling about using certain photos, or about making new ones of the renovations of famous houses.

After a couple of hours we went into the kitchen for lunch. Julius attacked the imposing pastrami and rye with an appetite undiminished by his recent chocolate binge. I could barely finish mine, and half expected him to offer help if I hesitated too long over the last few bites.

Back in his office, the conversation continued, as did the phone interruptions. The sale of his archive to Getty in 2005, and a long career as the go-to image maker for top architects, had made Shulman financially comfortable (to say the least), and yet he seemed to delight in still doing business with magazines (even if only to tell photo editors to call Getty).

At about three o’clock, he abruptly asked me: “Do you like Scotch?”

“Well, sure,” I replied, a bit nonplussed. “What’s not to like?”

“Someone gave me a bottle of what’s supposed to be very good single malt,” he said, reaching around behind his desk to retrieve a bottle of Glen something-or-other. “Shall we try it?”

Without waiting for an answer, he twisted off the cork and poured us a couple of fruit juice glasses full of what turned out to be excellent Scotch. No ice, no water, no soda. I probably hadn’t had hard liquor before the official cocktail hour since college, so I drank warily. Julius, however, dove right in, relishing every sip, and went right on answering my questions without hesitation — full of chocolate, pastrami, Scotland’s best, and sharply etched memories of a life well spent.

Posted in: Architecture, Photography

Comments [14]

Good stuff Owen.

Did the pastrami sandwich have mustard? (You answered the Scotch question.) And, where is the hell is the slideshow?

Standing by…

Joe Moran

Mr Shulman’s work, particularly his photographs of the Stahl house (CSH#22) did so much to inspire me as a youngster to get into the world of design. There was a beautiful optimism in those angular, modern compositions that compelled me to be creative. Thanks, Mr Shulman, may you rest in peace.
Randy Willoughby

mid century is over, has been over. it now exists as a phony background and aspirational furniture for so called interior designers and is most likely worshipped by those on the west coast.

Excellent article, I just wish it were book length. Mr. Shulman seemed every bit as interesting and exciting as his work. I thank you for a good read (although entirely too brief) to start my morning.
Greg Meyers

Just found this slideshow. (If there is something better, please link it.)

Joe Moran

Good post. I bought "Modernism Rediscovered" a couple of weeks before Mr. Shulman's passing (at a highly discounted rate!) and spent two evenings being blown away by the wealth and intelligence of the images. I have lived in Los Angeles for almost twenty-five years and these photos renewed my optimism for the place and reminded me of the incredible wealth of mid-century domestic architecture in this city.

Some years ago I was leading a tour of Houston art and design types around Los Angeles and we were lucky enough to be scheduled to visit Shulman's house, not Shulman. By this time he was in his 90's nd supposedly not in great shape.When we arrived he was as expected no where to be seen, supposedly napping. However, when he realized he had an audience he took usinto his studio and started opening draws full of images, telling stories and becoming more and more animated. What was supposed to be a quick stop at his house with no committmen on his part to talk to us, became a very long conversation in which his wit, energy and talent were all very much on display. it was pretty unforgettable.

He could also be a bit arrogant at times. In other situations I saw him clearly indicate that his ideal of photography which emphasized narrative optimism and beauty, was the only approach to picture taking, dismissing generations of others who have also contributed to telling the story of Los Angeles visually. Everyone I know put up with it because all knew he was the Dean of Deans of Los Angeles photographers and his enthusiasms made up for any perceived intellectual narrowness.

Finally, I feel sorry for poster Peter who does not seem to have either empathy for the dead (we will all end up there) or understanding that there is a lot of incredible mid-century modern work on the east coast as well as the west coast and everywhere in-between. Also, his underlying assumption that this is all Shulman shot is belied by the breadth of his work documenting the entire history of Los Angeles architecture and urbanism. His photos of the everyday city are available to see everyday in the hallways of City Hall and most interestingly in the public areas of the Department of Building and Safetey. One only hopes that they inspire a few more people as they go about building their own Los Angeles dreams.
John Kaliski

Ah, Glenfiddich.

Wonderful article. I, too, wish it was longer. I recently saw an exhibit on mid-century modernism, and I also must disagree with Peter. The clean lines are timeless, and finding examples in unexpected places is always a thrill.

Peter makes a certain point when he says most of these images (some of which are lovely) are dated. Which in fact they most definitely are, although they are as far as I know the best to represent that era. But that time is over.

Midcentury is something that is now loved only by trendy folks who adore Design Within Reach (which in itself is an indication how accessible and blase these designs have become) and, yes, by those on the West Coast or who aspire to be there.

Leslie C

I am always amazed by the hubris of people who are entirely dismissive of a body of work produced over decades. I can not believe based upon two of the comments in this post that the individuals so ready to dismiss Schulman's work and contribution to the story of architecture have spent much time looking at Schulman's work in it's entirety or have any real sense of just how much modern work was produced in the domestic area after WWII and up until the late 70's.

There is just as much mid-century modernism outside of Boston or in Westchester County or throughout the Northeast (and indeed the rest of the country) as there is in Los Angeles. It just happens that in Schulman there was a more coherent and consistent chronicler and this is part of the reason why his work as a whole stands large.

To dismiss this work as simply a function of style preferences that are now out of fashion once again or as west coast regionalism assumes that these issues are fixed. They never are. Given the amount of work that was produced in this era that Schulman contributed to, the story is only starting to be told. He was one of the inventor's of architectural photography as we know it, a concise chronicler of the architectural aspirations of an era, and while all genre's shift, you can not really appreciate architectural photography today or mid-century architecture, without an appreciation and respect for Schulman's work.

Defining things as "dated" or "phony background" (to what?) is fool's work and words when it comes to history and memory.
John Kaliski

Memory itself is the real fool's work when our own memories become erased with death, only to be filtered and diluted by others for their own means. Think of the people captured in those photos by Schulman- they are probably gone, or soon to be gone- and they are "dated" in that they have become retro nostalgia pieces of a dead and lost era.
DJ Casey Rheims

A couple of the commenters above reveal themselves to be hopeless examples of the snobbiest form of trendiness: the need to denigrate as "over" anything that has become too popular.

Was mid-century modernism really objectively better when fewer people liked it?

Exactly the same attitude is endemic in the indie music world. "Yeah, I used to like that band... back before all the uncool people discovered them. Now they SUCK."

"Trend aversion" is merely the flip side of "trend chasing"... both look to the crowd for value judgements. What a sad way to calibrate one's aesthetic preferences.

I still love the dated and all-too-accessible design beauty of my Sam Maloof chair. His discovery by the in crowd in the 1950s doesn't seem to have diminished its beauty and fine craftsmanship, even though most of those people (and Sam, sadly) are no longer here.
Tom Hurley

Found another slide show.

Joe Moran

Julius Shulman’s house is up for sale. I just took many pics of the house and the tour can be found online at http://www.TheShulmanHouse.com for anyone interested in seeing his personal home designed by Raphael Soriano for him in 1947 and completed in 1950.
David Brayton

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