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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Different Perspectives on Julius Shulman

Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis

When Sam Lubell, the West Coast editor of the Architect’s Newspaper, told me that he was working on a new book on Julius Shulman, I thought he was crazy. We already had several titles, and is there a lot more to say? He began mining the archive at the Getty Research Institute for a different narrative, and indeed, the story turns out to be much larger than we imagined. In this interview, Sam tells us his thinking behind the new volume, entitled Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis.

I enjoyed the essays that begin each chapter, but there is not a lot of text in this book. What was your role?

I did write a fairly lengthy introduction providing background about Julius’s work in Los Angeles, his photographic approach, his love of storytelling and of Los Angeles, and his concurrent blossoming with the city. Julius’s daughter, Judy McKee, also wrote a foreword that’s a more personal reflection on her father’s career and his relationship with Los Angeles. The bulk of the work, though, was curating Julius’s photographs. There are well over 100,000 photos in the Getty archive, and we had to somehow narrow it down to about 220. That took over a year and a half of visiting the Getty Research Institute and bringing the pictures into a coherent and fresh body of work.

How did the project evolve?

Rizzoli originally wanted to do a book on Julius’s interiors. But we realized early on that we wanted to differentiate it from the many other Shulman books out there. Anne Blecksmith at the Getty Research Institute pointed us in the direction of his lesser-known photos, which in the archive are the higher numbered boxes of contact sheets. When we started looking through those, we knew we had uncovered another side of Julius’s work that we thought needed to be shared. Most of this work was in the Los Angeles region, so we decided to focus on that. And we were most intrigued by the work from the 1940s to the 1960s—sort of the glory days of Los Angeles and of Julius. So that’s how we started to narrow it down.

You met him fairly late in his life. What were your impressions of him?

Even with diminished faculties, he had an amazing charisma and presence. Just his smile and his direct manner of speaking kept you in a sort of spell. Not many people have that effect. And he always made you feel welcome. He would welcome anyone who loved architecture into his home and made them feel like part of his life. You could tell how much he loved what he did and where he lived. And he never hesitated to show off his work. When you look at all of these factors, and the sort of legend he built up for himself, it’s not surprising that he was as successful as he was.

As you point out, Shulman had an eye for composition but also an ability to spin a tale. Do you have a favorite tale?

It’s really difficult to narrow it down, because there are so many. I loved talking to him about the picture he took of Neutra’s Miller House in Palm Springs. The shot shows Mrs. Miller sitting in front of a large window that shows off the expanse of the desert. He was telling a story not just about the beautiful architecture, or about Mrs. Miller (who he pointed out had “nice legs”), but also about the majestic expanse of nothingness that both were now part of. That’s what made the picture stand out, and what grabbed people. It’s funny because now that house is completely surrounded by development, and that magic effect is gone. Sort of like much of the region.

© J. Paul Getty Trust,
Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis
by Sam Lubell and Douglas Woods, Rizzoli New York, 2011.
Poolside at Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, 1947.

© Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica,
Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis
by Sam Lubell and Douglas Woods, Rizzoli New York, 2011.
A machine-age detail of the Sixth Street bridge, Los Angeles, 1933.

What were some of Shulman’s biases?

Julius had an eye for visual drama. With modernist buildings, he loved capturing the strong lines stretching toward the horizon, the merging of inside and outside, and the often heroic exposed structures. Some of his earlier shots, in more enclosed, traditional buildings, lack this sense of visual drama. In my opinion, he was of course an amazing photographer, but he also found a style of architecture that really matched his sense of optimism and excitement, and it showed in his pictures. His less “architectural” pictures were able to hook you in the same way. He again used strong lines and diagonals that could “suck you in.” He often framed pictures like a filmmaker. And he knew what it was about each shot that would make you stop in your tracks.

One visual bias I have noticed is that Shulman favored the horizontal image. I suppose that is a chicken/egg kind of question. Los Angeles was a horizontal city. Do you agree?

Yes, I think that’s correct. My instinct is that it’s a function of what he shot. The majority of the houses and landscapes he visited were horizontal—a jarring contrast with the verticality of traditional cities like New York and Chicago. He was capturing that sense of expanse and sprawl. When he did shoot in vertical cities, you’ll notice that most of his shots were vertical. So I think he was just taking in what he saw and maximizing its effect.

You write that most of Shulman’s archive is not architectural. Are you trying to reposition him as a recorder of culture as much as modern architecture?

It’s certainly not one or the other. He recorded architecture as well as culture and development together. Of course most of his assignments were to shoot buildings. But they were not all precious and “architectural.” Most of his work was the bread and butter variety that really filled up the city. And it’s looking at those works in their urban and suburban contexts that gives us a much fuller perception of the city.

© J. Paul Getty Trust,
Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis
by Sam Lubell and Douglas Woods, Rizzoli New York, 2011.
Mobil Gas Station, Smith and Williams, Anaheim, 1956.

© J. Paul Getty Trust,
Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis
by Sam Lubell and Douglas Woods, Rizzoli New York, 2011.
A view of the Biltmore Hotel, Schultze + Weaver, downtown Los Angeles, 1959.

Why did you select the very architectural image of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Freeman House living room for the cover if you were trying to get away from the architectural?

We start with what people expect from Julius: a beautiful piece of architecture. But then as you look at it, you become sucked into the scene of the city outside straight ahead of you. You see the streetscapes of Hollywood and you want to venture outside to see what it’s all about. It’s an arresting picture (always important for selling books!) that also tells the story of the book. His work was about architecture but also about the city around the architecture.

Is this book going to open up a new interpretation of Shulman?

I don’t think it will transform people’s impression of Shulman, but it will certainly give people a more complete idea of his legacy. Of course he still took shots of the most famous modernist buildings in the world. But he also took shots of every other piece of architecture imaginable.

Did he throw out much work? By that, I mean did he edit his archive before he filed the image?

That’s an excellent question. It’s unclear how much of his archive was self edited. Even the curators at the Getty don’t know the real answer to that. But given how many pictures are in the archive, and the variety of images in each shoot, I would have to guess that he kept most of the stuff that he shot. He certainly wasn’t afraid to put in duplicate images or images with crop marks or other edits on them. Some even have doodles on them, such as an image of Greta Grossman with glasses and a moustache drawn onto her. I have no idea what that was about. I wish I could ask him more about it.

When his house by Soriano was new, he had a view out over the canyons and the city. Over time the garden became quite overgrown, like a jungle. Was it his fortress against the city that was choking on its rapid growth?

That’s another question that I’d love to ask Julius. I know that the thing he loved most about Los Angeles was its combination of urbanity and nature. The fact that his garden became overgrown I would imagine had more to do with his single-minded focus on his photography. But he loved the respite that the house provided him. From what I could tell, it was his favorite place in the world.

© J. Paul Getty Trust,
Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis

by Sam Lubell and Douglas Woods, Rizzoli New York, 2011.
Julius Shulman’s home designed by Raphael Soriano, 1951.

When you were preparing this book, what surprised you the most?

I was surprised by the sheer magnitude of Shulman’s work. His log book is amazing. He shot something basically every day of his life. And when he wasn’t working, he was shooting things on vacation.

What’s your next project?

Ha! It’s a good project. Nothing is official, so I hesitate to share. But I’m working on an exhibit and book about projects that never came to fruition in Los Angeles called Never Built: LA. I’m also talking about a book about one of Shulman’s contemporaries, Marvin Rand. We’ll see where those go!

Julius Shulman, courtesy LA Times

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Looking at French West Africa

A Conversation about the Work of Photographer Seydou Keïta

Seydou Keïta

In May 2010, my niece Maya Caldwell graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in history and the history of art and visual culture. I asked her about what had really interested her, and she sent me a paper she wrote on an African photographer, Seydou Keïta. I had never heard of him, but was interested in how an invention of the colonial world could be used by postcolonial Africans to define their contemporary times. What follows is my conversation with Maya about Keïta’s work.

Why are you interested in the use of photography in colonial Africa?

I was struck by the way that photography was used as a tool of colonization, particularly in French West Africa. The French maintained a presence on the Western coast of Africa from the 17th century onward, and by the 19th century they ventured inland in search of resources, battling the Muslim conquest empires that stood in their way. They began to take photographs of the native people that they encountered, which were then sold as postcards. Over 8,000 different postcards were produced in colonial West Africa from 1901 to 1963. Often these postcards were intended to document racial “types,” as the French called them, or illustrate the progress of French development projects. The postcards were sent mainly by European merchants and members of the French military. These postcards circulated throughout Europe, received by friends and families back home.

What do the thousands of postcards tell us?

The postcards reveal the way that the French colonizers viewed themselves and the people they were subjugating. Printed and handwritten captions on the postcards often highlight the racism inherent in the imagery. For example, one postcard of a bare-chested young woman carrying a bowl of water has a handwritten caption in French which translates as, “Young virgin. Very naïve.” Another has a typed caption that translates simply, “West Africa. Dioula Type.” When indigenous settlements are portrayed, they are made to look chaotic and dark in comparison to the light, linear, and orderly depictions of French buildings.

How did contemporary photographers change this dynamic?

In the 20th century, African photographers appropriated the colonizer’s aesthetic, using similar techniques and modified visual conventions to recapture the agency that had been taken from the previous generation of Africans by European colonists.

Beginning in the 1940s, Africans turned the colonizer’s tool on its head, using the photograph as a visual means of resistance. Early African photographers like Seydou Keïta and Mama Casset strongly influenced succeeding generations, including Malick Sidibe, Samuel Fosso, Philip Kwame Apagya, and many others.

Why did you focus your studies on Seydou Keïta?

Seydou Keïta (ca. 1921-2001) is a very well-known photographer today, both in Africa and internationally. Keïta is almost never mentioned without reference to the French collector André Magnin, yet the photographs that made Keïta famous were taken decades before his meeting with Magnin, in a small studio in Bamako, Mali. He was one of the first African photographers in Bamako. His studio was a business, and the photographs were taken of or for private clients to “put bread on the table.” They were not made as art objects. This is not to say that the photographs aren’t artistic. If there was one word for Keïta’s photographs, it would be captivating. The composition, the light, the pose, every detail is painstakingly perfected.

How did he get his first camera?

In 1935, when Seydou was around 14 years old, his uncle Tiemoko brought home a 6 x 9 Kodak Brownie camera from a trip to Senegal. Tiemoko explains that he didn’t originally intend to give it away, but Seydou was so fascinated by the contraption that Tiemoko gave it to him. Seydou’s father gave him some land behind the main prison in Bamako Koura, and that is where Keïta opened his studio in 1948. By then, he had over a decade’s experience taking photographs for his own enjoyment.

Can you explain applying the Foucault argument to Keïta’s subjects dressing like the colonizers?

In Keïta’s photographs, subjects often opted to wear western-style clothing and use props indicative of European influence, like radios, glasses, sewing machines, and cars. By displaying these symbols of “Frenchness,” the subjects may have felt that they were showing their advanced social and economic positions. The photographs seem to reflect a desire to partially assimilate, but they are also an assertion of control over that assimilation, and the degree to which it will take place.

Julie Doring, a scholar who has written about Keïta’s photos, drawing on the work of Foucault, argues that these photos reflect a kind of colonial ambivalence that “may ultimately empower the colonized.” Foucault suggested that appropriation could function as a means of empowerment. It may seem incongruous that after centuries of subjugation, African people would choose to don the accoutrements of the colonizer. These photographs represent a time and a feeling that cannot necessarily be categorized as one thing or the other, but I do think there are empowering elements in these photographs. They were taken by Africans of themselves, which in and of itself was a dramatic shift from colonial representation. The ability to imagine and create one’s own image is a very powerful thing.

How did the political turbulence in Mali impact Keïta’s work?

Seydou Keïta closed his studio in 1963, when he was asked to work exclusively for the new socialist government in Mali. Keïta says that he first got the job because he was related to the new president, Modibo Keïta. Throughout the turbulent political goings-on of the era, Seydou worked as an official government photographer. Despite his relation to Modibo Keïta, he stayed on under the Traore dictatorship. Keïta hints at political reasons for his departure, but does not elaborate, saying only, “Around that time, I had a misunderstanding with some of the military people, and I decided that I was tired of the job.” After he quietly retired from his government position, he worked as a mechanic.

Tell me about the meeting between André Magnin and Seydou Keïta.

The very first exhibition of Keïta’s photographs took place in New York in 1991 at the Center for African Art. They were part of a show called “Africa Explores: 20th Century African Art,” and the author was listed as “Unknown photographer, (Bamako, Mali.)” Curator Susan Vogel claimed that she had collected the photographs while on vacation in Mali and had neglected to save the name of the artist. Soon after the “Africa Explores” exhibition, André Magnin went to Mali to search for the artist at the request of collector Jean Pigozzi. The story of their meeting is told differently by Keïta and Magnin. The discrepancies between these two versions are full of significance. André Magnin, widely lauded as Keïta’s discoverer, paints a beautiful picture, describing Keïta’s Muslim garb, a boubou and fez, his pose in the doorway, the light in the window. Keïta, on the other hand, pokes fun at Magnin and his colleagues, claiming that they did not initially recognize him. Instead of being dressed up for the mosque, Keïta remembers that he was working on his engine. It is impossible to know what exchange actually took place that first day, but it is how they each remember the incident that underscores the controversy that later ensued.

What happened?

Whatever the real story of their meeting, Magnin and Keïta met and arranged a deal during Magnin’s visit to Bamako in 1991. Magnin selected 1,300 photographs to be enlarged and made into high-quality prints. The prints were sent to Keïta for signing, which verified the authenticity of the print and substantially increased the eventual price tag. The large sums of money at stake may have led to the discord that arose in the relationship between Magnin and Keïta. Apparently, their initial agreement had been a verbal one, as is customary in Africa. Towards the end of Keïta’s life, when it became clear that the artist’s health was failing, Magnin suggested to Keïta that he should entrust him with his estate. While specific details are hard to come by, it is clear that Magnin’s proposal upset Keïta. In October of 2001, just before his death, Keïta handed control of his estate over to his agent Jean Marc Patras, who helped him establish the Seydou Keïta Association in Bamako. The association eventually sued Magnin for the return of the negatives in his possession, but as of the latest media coverage, they have not been returned.

How do these images change when they move into the museum or gallery?

Since being featured in numerous museum and gallery shows, Keïta’s work has been the subject of some scholarly debate. Much of this debate centers around issues of authorship. At first, it seems obvious that Keïta is the author. After all, he took the photographs, he owned the negatives, he was (eventually) given artistic credit for the images. However, since these photos were created as a commercial product, the client had a collaborative role. Now, it is the viewer who collaborates with the finished product. When Keïta’s photographs are relocated to the museum or gallery context, they function differently. They are aesthetic objects available to the public for artistic interpretation and criticism, a use for which they were never intended. The audience often has little background on Keïta himself, and information about the subjects of photos, including their name, is usually nonexistent. In the museum or gallery setting, Keïta’s images take on new meanings, which may or may not reflect the intentions of Keïta and/or the subject.

Are they transformed from a commercial product into fine art?

I suppose it depends on how you define “commercial product” and “fine art.” Once again, there is no easy answer, and really it is up to the viewer to decide. One of Keïta’s most striking works is a photograph of a very large man dressed in a light-colored boubou, holding a tiny baby on his vast expanse of lap. The boubou is central to the image, and the man’s size only serves to underscore this focus. In addition, the size of the man and the size of the baby seem to play off of one another in a humorous way. The man’s good-natured smile shows that he is in on the joke. This man is one of the few clients whom Keïta remembered by name. Looking at this photograph during an interview, Keïta noted, “That big fellow there is Billaly.” Underneath this photo the name Billaly replaces what is usually the caption in the gallery or museum space. But while many of the works do not have names, the original subjects and viewers knew who they were. This is not the same kind of forced anonymity inscribed by colonial photographers. With Keïta’s photographs, it is only in the museum and gallery context that a name becomes a title or lack thereof. In the production of this image, Billaly was an integral part, and the image was made as an expression of his identity for personal use. In that sense, Keïta’s works are very different from works created for display in an institution. But does that mean they are not and should not be viewed as art in another context?

Are we participating in a kind of colonialism by promoting this work as art?

That is possible. It really depends on our perspective as viewers. What we create often has a life of its own that we cannot completely control. The viewer has the ability to place Keïta’s work in various contexts, and thus his work may take on a unique meaning for each individual viewer. I believe that it is also possible that through art we can promote understanding and develop something entirely new—that is not a kind of colonialism at all. The manifestation of that vision will require an ongoing global dialogue, which these questions are part of. By being displayed as art, Seydou Keïta’s work becomes a part of that dialogue. In any case, Seydou Keïta’s story is a testament to the power of images to both reflect and shape our perception of the world.

All photos courtesy seydoukeitaphotographer.com.