Remembering Julius Shulman
By Marc Kristal
“He’s led a charmed life,” Judy Shulman told me, shortly after I’d spent the afternoon with her 96-year-old father Julius, writing a profile of him for Dwell magazine, in 2007. It had certainly seemed that way. Other than using a walker to get around, he appeared to be in excellent health, and had all his marbles. The fact that Shulman had made all the right moves was evident from his circumstances: he resided off L.A.’s Mulholland Drive, in the last remaining unrenovated house by the midcentury master Raphael Soriano, for which he paid $40,000 in 1950, on a two-acre lot that backed up against 53 acres of protected land and overlooked nothing but lush Laurel Canyon greenery.
He was also still working, albeit with the aid of an able collaborator, a German named Juergen Nogai—homeowners still considered it an ultra-cool privilege to have their digs photographed by the one, the only, and there were more assignments than he could handle. Personally, Shulman had enjoyed two long marriages, both times, he assured me, to great women. And—at least according to the photographer, who manifested an agreeably, unapologetically colossal ego—everyone admired and loved him (though no one, to be sure, more than himself).
I think the photographer can go beyond the artist. I can create a summation of the total image of what was in the architect’s mind, the physical aspects of the structure, and, of course, the spirit. Julius Shulman
The interesting thing about Shulman—and one of the most appealing things, at least to me—was that, though he was unquestionably a great artist, he didn’t represent as one. He had never planned to be a professional photographer, and essentially backed into his life’s work by accident, when Richard Neutra, impressed by some snapshots Shulman had taken of the architect’s Kun House, asked the young amateur lensman to document more of his projects (“March 5, 1936—that day I became a photographer. Why not?”); Shulman, a former Boy Scout and ardent nature-lover, declared he would have been just as happy raking leaves for the L.A. parks department, and when he said it, you half believed him.
He had a perfect instinct for when the light was right, and claimed never to use a meter. According to Wim de Wit, who’d brought Shulman’s collected works to the Getty Research Center, the photographer seldom made more than a handful of exposures before deciding he’d nailed it—no fuss, no muss. An extremely astute businessman, Shulman would, after taking architectural photos of an office building or department store, shoot pictures of the sinks and toilets in the restrooms and sell them to the manufacturers, thereby bumping up his take for each gig. And even the man’s great innovation—using people in his residential images, as stars of miniature domestic narratives—was less about aesthetics than showing how livable and user-friendly midcentury modern houses could be.
Of course, Shulman had his limitations. He was not, as the later-era architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter said when I interviewed him for the Dwell story, someone who continued to do interesting work until the end. Lacking an artist’s temperament, and having found his way so naturally and inevitably, Shulman perhaps lacked an artist’s relentless curiosity; his “golden age” largely ended when the residences he loved and that inspired him, notably the Case Study houses—his muses, as Street-Porter put it—went out of fashion. But the photographer’s best work not only stood the test of time, but defined an era: a series of lyrical tableaux that invested the high-water moment of postwar American optimism with an arresting, oddly innocent glamour. And to this day, Shulman’s pictures continue to be not only admired and studied and collected but also copied.
Best of all—and here, I felt, was the take-away—he had a great time doing what he did. When I asked Shulman if he was surprised at how well his life had turned out, he said, “I tell students, ‘Don’t take life too seriously—don’t plan nothing nohow.’ But I have always observed and respected my destiny. That’s the only way I can describe it. It was meant to be.”
A charmed life indeed.
It doesn't make any difference, black and white or color, if you have a strong statement. Julius Shulman