Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Julius Shulman

A Poor Imitation of the Style of Julius Shulman, 2006

When the famous architectural photographer Julius Shulman died last year, it didn’t make a huge impression on me. I knew his work. You’d probably recognize it, too, even if you don’t recognize his name. Shulman’s photographs of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study No. 22 house in Los Angeles and Richard Neutra’s Kauffman residence in Palm Springs are probably two of the most iconic examples of residential architectural photography in the United States. Los Angeles gallery owner Craig Krull says simply of Shulman:

“He’s the most important architectural photographer in history.”

For many people, I suspect, it’s Shulman’s exquisite black and white photographs that define Southern Californian Modernism. Shulman came to California in the 1920s and got to know Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and other cutting edge architects of the day. He championed their work and they grew to trust him above all other photographers. Now that some of the buildings they designed are gone, it’s Shulman’s photographs that keep them alive for students of architecture and others.

(I wrote about Schindler and Neutra here after visiting two of their best-known projects in LA last December.)

I never knew much about Shulman the man, though. There’s a terrific documentary about him, Visual Acoustics, that’s running currently on the Sundance Channel. It was produced a few years before his death and I commend it to you highly if you’re interested in the intersection of photography and architecture.

Shulman loved his work and he respected the architects whose work he photographed. In the documentary, one art historian says the residences photographed by Shulman:

“…were probably not as beautiful in real life as they were in his pictures.”

There’s truth to this. Shulman’s photographs, which were extremely popular in both architectural trade journals and consumer magazines alike, portray an idealized notion of living that I suspect compelled a great many people to move to California.

Shulman believed the camera “is the least important element in photography.” His photographs are known for their strong leading angles and their skilled lightning. The Case Study No. 22 photograph, for example, included two rapid flashes to illuminate the interior of the house, followed by a fourteen-minute exposure at f39 to capture the detail of the nighttime skyline in the background.

What Visual Acoustics does so nicely is highlight the work while introducing the viewer to Shulman’s charming personality. In one sequence, Shulman tells a much younger photographer that he always darkens the edges of his photographs (a technique many of us have borrowed from landscape painting). When the young man protests that he never darkens the edges of his architectural photographs, Shulman confidently jokes back:

“Well, I always do that, and it’s why people like my photography so much.”

Lovell Health House, 2009

Some attribute the rebirth of modernism in residential architecture and the popularity of mid-century home furnishings designs to the re-release of Julius Shulman photographs. There’s no doubt it was his finest time. In fact, Shulman was so turned off by the tricks of the postmodern architectural movement when it hit its stride in the 1970s that he chose to retire rather than chronicle it.

Julius Shulman’s another one of those people I wish I’d had the chance to know. I know I’d have learned a lot. But even if I didn’t know him personally, I know his photographs have and will continue to inform my architectural photography and the documentary Visual Acoustics will give me more of an appreciation of Shulman and his enduring contribution to the fields of photography and architecture.


  1. When I decided to take up photography as a hobby last year this is where the Internet really proved it's worth to me; experienced photographers sharing their inspiration and knowledge which, in turn, inspires novices like me to research and study the art form. Thank you, Chris! I'm adding to my reading list, not only online, but for my next trip to the library, as well.

  2. I'll learn a lot about photographers from you--I don't know his work at all, although I recognize his name. Interesting! I always love your architecturally-inspired photos.