A New Online Home for Design Faith Blog

I have moved the Design Faith blog to my relaunched website kennethcaldwell.com You'll be redirected there in 10 seconds.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Remembering Julius Shulman

July 17, 2009

I was saddened to hear that Julius Shulman died on Wednesday, July 15. He was 98. I only knew him slightly, but he hardly seemed to age in the 20 years I observed him. Julius’s life reminds us that an individual can have enormous impact on the culture.

In 1989, I moved to Los Angeles and worked for AC Martin for a few years. The firm’s history was completely tied to Los Angeles’s emergence as a dominant city in the 20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, they worked with Julius Shulman on documenting several projects. The images of the Department of Water and Power are a permanent record of what Reyner Banham waxed poetic about. During the seminal landmark “Blueprints for Modern Living” exhibit at MOCA from 1989 to 1990, David Martin and I were looking at one of Julius’s photograph of the building, and he commented, “The lady with the red scarf looks like she just walked over to DWP from one of the case study houses.” The model dates the photo, but she also captures the awe people felt at the majesty of the new building floating over downtown. Shulman caught more than the building, he made the magic.

Whenever I ordered prints from him, he would ask if I wanted them delivered, or if I wanted to pick them up. Driving up into the Hollywood hills to his Soriano house on Woodrow Wilson Drive was one of the highlights of my short stay in Los Angeles. He referred to himself as Uncle Julius and was endearing. He was also irascible, self-absorbed, and a braggart. But I didn’t care; he was easy to forgive. After all, he told the story of the cultural emergence of West Coast modernism to the rest of the world. After seeing him a few times, you also got to know a gentler person. But with an audience, he was a ham. In the privacy of his home, he would encourage guests to “play” the metal Bertoia sculpture, enjoy a bowl of ice cream, and talk about everything. He adored his wife, and she watched over him.

I interviewed him for the April 1990 issue of LA Architect. That article is reproduced here.

Q: When did you start taking pictures?

In high school in 1927 I took a course in photography. In the process of taking field trips, I had the assignment to take pictures of a high school track meet at the coliseum. I set my camera on a ledge overlooking the tunnel. I heard the starter’s gun, and the runners came out of the tunnel below me. As they went over the first hurdle I snapped my picture. That picture’s coming out in the Angeles magazine story as my first picture.

I didn’t do anything with the camera again until 1933. I finished high school and went on to UCLA in 1929. In 1933 somebody gave me a vest-pocket Eastman Kodak camera, and I started taking snapshots. I went from UCLA up to Berkeley for a couple of years, had the camera with me and stated taking pictures of students and buildings around the campus, without ever knowing about architecture. Those pictures I blew up to 8x10s, framed, and sold around the campus.

When I came home in February 1936, my sister had rented a room to a young man employed by Neutra, and she introduced me to him. One Sunday, at his invitation, we went to see the Neutra house down at the bottom of the canyon here. I took some snapshots, and gave the prints to the fellow, who showed them to Neutra. He called me and said Mr. Neutra would like to meet you, can you come down Saturday. I went over and Mr. Neutra said he liked my pictures very much, and he bought some. That same day Neutra pointed to the house up on the hill that was being done by Raphael Soriano. So I drove up to Silverlake and met Soriano, and we became good friends. That’s how I became involved in architecture.

Q: What format did you use?

99% of my work was 4x5. However, in the 50s we did a lot of work for certain magazines such as Good Housekeeping, whose art directors insisted that all photographers work with 8x10 film. As time went on, 35 mm became so effective, that most publications could reproduce it just as well as they could reproduce 8x10. There’s no limit to the work you can have published from a small camera. I would take a black and white picture first, then I would have my assistant hand me a color transparency and sometimes a color negative, and then I’d take a 35 mm slide.

Q: Did you do other kinds of photography?

I covered the arts, sculpture, ceramics, landscape architecture, and found there’s a big market for commercial work, too. Especially in the 50s, I had accounts among the advertising managers of major building projects and material companies back east. American Airlines had their national maintenance and operational plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which I photographed for an architect in Oklahoma City. And while I was doing this work in those years I learned that the companies who installed the major equipment needed pictures of their products. Especially in those days, they were heavy advertisers in the architectural and the trade magazines. After I finished photographing the building, I spent two or three days photographing equipment in the boiler room, and I sold thousands of dollars worth of photographs to the manufacturers, who appreciated the service I was giving them.

Q: Do you miss the use of black and white photography in magazines?

So many publications, even the AIA magazines, waste a fortune on printing color. They could get two or three times more pictures in their space if they remove the color. However, in this world of ours, if you want advertising revenue, and you show a magazine full of black and white pictures, the advertisers will say no, we will not publish in your magazine unless you show more color editorially.

Q: Did you work side by side with the architects on shoots?

For one house that I photographed for Gregory Ain, there was no landscape because the people didn’t have the money for landscaping. So while driving to the shoot, we saw a geranium grove in front of someone else’s house, and we sneaked out and filled the car with boughs of geraniums and stuck them in the ground in front of Ain’s house. Even in black and white they photographed very nicely. But the point is that architects worked together with photographers in those days. Neutra often pushed me away from the camera and had me or my assistant move the camera right or left, or crank it up and down. Other architects agreed that we would discuss the composition, and most of the time they would be willing to accept the framework of the scene that we were creating. But as the years went on, architects became too busy to go with me on assignments, or too lazy, and in the bigger firms the architects didn’t even know where the building was.

Q: Do you perceive yourself as photographing for history?

I would be very dishonest if I were to say that I was far visioned. I didn’t dream of ever becoming a photographer. After seven years of school, I almost became a forest ranger. I knew all the time that photography was important, but it was only in recent years that I realized what a treasure the photographs are.

No comments: