Julius Shulman 1910-2009

Julius Shulman, born in 1910 in Brooklyn, New York, who became America’s best known architectural photographer, largely for his pictures of the new modern architecture in California, died on 15 July aged 98. You can read obituaries in The Guardian and most other newspapers from around the world.

Shulman’s Russian parents had met in their teens when both came to New York from Russia, and soon after his birth the family moved to rural Connecticut where his father farmed on around a hundred acres, several miles from the nearest village. It was a close to nature subsistence upbringing, living on an isolated farm with a single farmhand.

In 1990 Shulman recorded an interview with Taina Rikala De Noreiga for the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art – and much of what I know about his life comes from this, which was a major source when I first wrote about him in 2001 for About Photography. Here he says that the farm  “was the beginning of my association with Nature” which remained important throughout his life.

When he was ten the family moved west to California, and his parent ran a dry goods store in Los Angeles, continued by his mother after his father died in 1923. Shulman joined the boy scouts and went hiking and camping and went to a high school that – very unusually for the time – included photography as one of its classes.

He started taking pictures for the class when he was 17, using the family  ‘Eastman Box Camera’, but although his work was good, didn’t consider it as a career.  He had decided to go to university and study electrical engineering, and took a year out before starting at UCLA in 1929 to earn some money and buy his first car, as well as spending as much time as possible in the outdoors.

He soon dropped out of the college course, but continued to hang out around the campus. He was given a Vest Pocket Kodak as a birthday present and began to use it to take pictures on his hikes. When a friend who was a student at Berkeley suggested he move there, he took the camera and began to make a few dollars taking portraits of students there and selling pictures of the older campus buildings through the campus shop.

In 1936 he went back to Los Angeles, where his sister ran a drug store close to architect Richard Neutra’s office. A new young draughtsman who joined Neutra took the spare room in his sister’s house and the two young men became friends. One Sunday afternoon he took Shulman to look around a house Neutra had designed that was almost finished, and Shulman took half a dozen pictures.

His new friend took some 8x10s of these pictures to show his boss who liked them and asked to meet the photographer – and on 5 March 1936 when Netra bought these prints, Shulman’s career as an architectural photographer was launched. Neutra introduced him to the other architects he knew, including Raphael Soriano, Rudolf Schindler and Gregory Ain, and commissioned him to photograph his own new buildings.

In 1937, Shulman was earning enough to buy a view camera, and he also got married.; at that time photography was a fairly easy way to earn a living and left him plenty of time to go walking and camping. The start of the war brought new commissions as new factories were built, but then his career was interrupted when he had to join the army. He worked for two years as a medical photographer on a private’s pay.

His wife kept the business going during his service, getting prints  made and selling these, particularly to the architecture collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The young architects whose work he had recorded were becoming famous, and pictures were in demand.

Shulman’s successful career as an architectural photographer resumed in the post-war years. His pictures very much shared a modernist aesthetic with those architects whose work he famously photographed, and his ‘retirement’ in 1987 was probably as much a matter of changing styles of architecture which he felt little interest in as anything else.

He did in fact continue to take photographs, but was able to choose just the best of the new buildings as his subjects, including Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and Richard Meier’s Getty Center in  Los Angeles. He was the only photographer to be granted  honorary lifetime membership by the American Institute of Architects.

Shulman’s best known image is picture of Pierre Koenig‘s Case Study House #22, Los Angeles, California. made at night in 1960. In it two women are suspended in a glass and steel box apparently floating over the night-time grid of the lights of Hollywood below. It was created on a single sheet of film, combining a long time exposure with a second short flash lit exposure for the interior, and you can read exactly how it was done in a fascinating Taschen feature, The Making of an Icon, which reunited the six people involved in the shot in 2001.

Also worth looking at are L A Obscura, the web site of a 1998 exhibition of his photography at the University of Southern California, and a feature for the 2005/6 show at the Getty. You can also watch a short trailer for the film ‘Visual Acoustics, The Modernism of Julius Shulman‘ which includes a little footage of the man himself.

I’m not sure that Shulman was “the greatest architectural photographer of all time“, but he was certainly a very good one, and the best-known of American architectural photographers of the 20th century.

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