Julius Shulman (b. 1910, Brooklyn,
NY; d. 2009, Los Angeles). American architectural photographer.
If there has ever been a man who captured
defining images of the time he lived, it is Julius Shulman. Among his vast output
of fine b/w and color photographs are iconic images from the great
age of modern architecture in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Geographically, his work
spans the globe, but the greatest concentration of images are from southern
California, in a rough triangle with vertices at Los
Angeles, San Diego, and Palm
Springs. Two of his images are arguably the greatest, and most famous art photographs of architecture in the world.
The first of these was taken in 1947,
of Richard Neutra's 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. Kaufmann was the client who, a decade earlier,
had caused Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater to be built, and after rejecting
another Wright design for the desert, Kaufmann settled on the more avant-garde modernism of Neutra. The picture is easy to recall. The crisp
lines of the glass-walled house fill the middle ground with a series of cantilevered
horizontal planes over verticals which offer more articulation than structural
support. In the background, what Shulman calls 'alpenglow'--vestiges of sunset--forms
a halo over the western mountains which rise up barren and rugged behind the
house. The interior of the house is subtly lit and beckons us in from the backyard.
In the foreground and to the left of the house proper are pool chairs and the
pool. On a pad hastily thrown down on the cement border of the pool is Mrs.
Kaufmann, whose head and upper body block a pool light. The immense seductive
power of well designed modern architecture in its full flourishing was never
more apparent than in this photograph. The moment, alas, is gone, and as if a
harbinger of its transitory nature, Mrs. Kaufmann died not long thereafter.
Shulman says that this picture has had the widest circulation of any photograph
in the history of architecture.
The second of Shulman's great icons
is a 1960 night-time photograph of Pierre Koenig's 1959 Case Study House #22,
high in the Hollywood Hills over LA. In a glass box cantilevered out over the
hillside, two women in attractive cocktail gowns are seated with improbably
correct posture. Their light gowns contrast with the dark plain of LA below,
and that plain is speckled with a million lights in a suggestive grid. The roof
is formed by a serried row of beams resting with geometrical precision on a
lintel supported by the narrowest of posts
between the glass panels. The materials are industrial; the furniture is modern
but clearly accessibly priced. This is the post-war dream, to live high and
aloof above the fabulous modern city in your impeccably modern aerie, and the
underlying message is that any middle class people with sufficient bravery to
explore the modern lifestyle can afford it.
But these are merely the most famous
of Shulman's photographs. His work documents an exciting period of (especially)
domestic architecture in great detail and to look
through a collection of his photographs offers in itself an introductory course
in modern architecture.
In his retrospective Architecture
and its Photography, Shulman complains of the emptiness of contemporary
design, and it is hard not to read his words with elegiac emotions. His eye
was attuned to modern architecture, he made it famous, and then in a reciprocal
way, it made him famous. He speaks of the great earnestness of Walter Gropius
in a 1963 meeting with that famous architect/designer, about how the architect
and his staff were deeply concerned to meet the clients' demands and to produce
absolutely the highest quality product. Shulman unconsciously regrets the disapearance
of the moderns and the ascendancy of the postmoderns, whose ironic, historicizing
style is at such odds with the earnestness of moderns like Gropius. It is telling
that there is only one photograph of a postmodern structure in Shulman's book,
Philip Johnson's Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA.
There is a large and growing literature
about Shulman on the web, and he will rise to the top of a Google search for
Dietsch, Deborah, Classic Modern. Midcentury Modern at Home (2000)
52-57 (Kaufmann house); 88-99 (Case Study Houses); 86-87 (affordability and
Shulman, Julius, Architecture and its Photography (1998).
Serraino, Pierluigi, and Shulman, Julius, Modernism Rediscovered (2000).