Of Photography and Fame

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Weston, Byles & Rugolph’s Roberts Residence, Malibu, California (1953)
Julius Shulman/Courtesy J. Paul Getty Trust

In the realm of architectural photography two figures stand alone in terms of their impact on how we view, consider, and consume images of modern design and architecture. Ezra Stoller on the East Coast and Julius Shulman on the West Coast are the acknowledged masters of their discipline, influencing a generation of younger photographers, including myself. Shulman, who will turn 97 in October, continues to produce and occasionally still accepts the odd commission.

Architectural photography, often brilliant in technique, can be staid in concept. Most architects who commission photographs are not looking for individual expression, but rather a well-crafted document of the subject building. Julius Shulman’s images defy this formula and although he will forever be identified with West Coast pioneers in architecture such as Richard Neutra, John Lautner, and the architects of the Case Study Houses in Los Angeles, his iconic photographs have burned themselves into the popular imagination, transcending their subject to become objects in themselves, independent of the buildings they depict. -Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes: How did you get started on a career in architectural photography, at a time when there was really no established field of work in photographing architecture?

Julius Shulman: My architectural work began when I met Richard Neutra by chance in March 1936. I had been going to UCLA for five years and spent two more years up in Berkeley when I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do. Here, I had spent several years walking through the campus and going to lectures without any direction in my life. I was living with a friend in a two-bedroom apartment—$25 a month, by the way—when one morning I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and the thought entered my mind, ‘Julius, you better go home.’ It was a signal.

But I did have a little Vest Pocket Kodak from my parents. Then by chance this young man, an apprentice in Neutra’s office, said he wanted to show me a house that had just been completed by Neutra. I said, ‘Who’s Neutra?’ I had never met an architect before but I went to the house—it was the Kun House—and took six snapshots with my little Kodak, made some 8×10 prints, and gave them to him. Immediately after that, this fellow called me up and said, ‘Mr. Neutra loved the photographs and he’d like to meet you this coming Saturday.’

I went down to the studio in Silver Lake. I met Neutra who said he’d never seen such photographs and he wanted extra copies. He asked who I was and was I studying architecture or photography? When I told him I was at the university doing nothing, he said, ‘Would you like to take more photographs for me?’ Boom! So on March 5, 1936, I became a photographer.

Were there other architects you met and worked with at the time?

Well, that same day Neutra told me about another apprentice, named [Raphael] Soriano, who’d just done his first house up in the hills above Silver Lake. So I drove up there and met him the same day. We hit it off beautifully; he was sitting on the floor eating a sandwich. He gave me a sandwich; I sat down on the rug and we talked for about two hours. ‘Now that you’ve met Neutra,’ he said, ‘would you like to photograph this house, too?’ And that was Soriano’s Lipetz House with the curved wall looking out over the lake and a grand piano in the middle of the floor because the lady was a pianist. Soriano became famous from the very beginning, and so
my photographs were immediately published.

I went on to meet all the young architects [Gregory] Ain, [Rudolf] Schindler, Pierre Koenig. We were all in the same boat, young people beginning our work. And in 1947 when I bought some property, two acres up in the Hollywood Hills, I hired Soriano who was a good friend by then.

Why would you hire Soriano, and not Neutra?

Soriano was so wonderfully friendly and warm. Neutra was fine, but he wasn’t my kind of person. I did work with him from 1936 until he died and it was through Neutra that I was destined to become a ‘world famous’ photographer. No question about that.

Do you think your images also helped to make him a ‘world famous’ architect?

(Laugh) It takes two, I guess. But I think it was just destiny that I became an architectural photographer. Before I met Neutra, I had no idea, no indication, no inkling of what I was going to do with my life.

But at the time there was no such thing as an architectural photographer. Maybe there were photographers who did commercial work, but you really carved out a whole new field.

Maybe. But in the course of my work I started seeing work published in magazines. Ezra Stoller came a little later, true, in the late 1930s to early 1940s, but up in San Francisco there was Roger Sturtevant—we became good friends— and Ulrich Meisel in Dallas. Then, of course, there was Hedrich Blessing in Chicago; and then, Maynard Parker who was a commercial photographer in Los Angeles. In those days, magazines called commercial photographers. Elizabeth Gordon of House Beautiful called Parker to do her house and he was really good. But, really, there was just a handful of us.

Did you have a sense as you took them that some of your images transcended the documents you were producing for the architects—the view of the two women at Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 comes instantly to mind? Or was it something about LA the city itself that shaped your approach?

No, I’ll tell you what happened. From that very first photograph that I took of the Kun House, I found I could just catch things on film that we—the architect and myself—didn’t see ourselves or didn’t even realize existed. Benedikt Taschen [publisher of the new book] says I extract the essence of a place.

What about Los Angeles? What was it like when you arrived?

It was a really particular moment. LA had become a mecca for people from all over the world. Everyone wanted to come. Even my father who had a small clothing business and a 75-acre orange grove wrote to his friend, ‘Max! You’ve got to come. The streets are paved in gold’—he meant the orange grove. But back then in 1920 when we came to California from New York, the population in Los Angeles was about 576,000. It was a small town.

If you had stayed out East and, instead of working for Neutra, Ain, Koenig, and the rest, you worked for Saarinen, Gropius, and Mies (although they were later, after the war). But let’s say you’d lived on the East Coast, how would your work have been different?

I wouldn’t have become a photographer! I wouldn’t have been taking those snapshots while I was wandering around Berkeley. I did have a friend who was a writer and he had a nice little office in Rockefeller Center in the 1940s. He said I should open an office in New York. Without any hesitation, I said, ‘I love New York!’ You see, I was born in Brooklyn. But I was already established in Los Angeles and all the architects jumped at me because there was no other photographer who did architecture.

At that level.

At any level.

How did you get along with the individual architects? Did you consider them friends. Did you learn anything from them?

I established close friendships with them all. I seemed to speak their language, not only with my camera. With Gregory Ain, there was something about his architecture that I liked, and my liking the work made me respect it, and as a result I was able to create these great compositions. I could transcend or transfigure or translate what the architect saw in his own work. Something just came through. They didn’t know how I did it; they’d just shake their heads. Even Frank Lloyd Wright wrote me a letter about my photographs of Taliesin West: ‘How did you ever achieve such beautiful photographs?’ Doesn’t matter: the point is, it’s a gift. I was raised close to nature, maybe that’s part of it. My spirit is close to nature.

Regarding your technique, you have a great facility with lighting and also for using people in your photographs. You used color film early on and your images have this naturalness to them which is also, and I realize this is contradictory, strangely theatrical, without seeming forced or over the top.

Can you talk about that?

As a matter of fact, it came home to me just recently when Paul Goldberger wrote in the New Yorker that if I hadn’t become a photographer, I might have been a good lighting expert. And it’s true that one of my innate qualities is knowing how to use lighting. I don’t use it to dramatize but to express what the architect wants. When I line up something, you never see the source of the light, but you do know it’s there.
Most photographers today rely on Polaroids, or computers, to test for composition and lighting before committing the scene to film. You couldn’t do all that and yet you still achieved these amazing results.

Most photographers I knew did not use flash bulbs before the days of strobe lighting. I would use flood lights then put flash lights in to balance the indoor and outdoor lighting intensity. As a result my lighting appeared very natural and balanced. And then I used people—not abundantly but more than most—to occupy the space, not posing, but doing something the space was designed for. Neutra didn’t like it when I started putting in people. He did not want them. He didn’t want anything to attract attention away from his architecture.

I read somewhere that in one of your most iconic and famous images of all—the Kaufman House in Palm Springs—you used people and Neutra wasn’t happy about it. But what makes that photograph really work for me is the figure in the foreground. Were you using her as a “gobo” [go between] to block the light?

Yes! That’s Mrs. Kaufman. And what happened is this: It was a very complex composition and that one photograph took me 45 minutes. I was supposed to be doing the interiors. But when I went out there I saw how beautiful the twilight was, and I knew it wouldn’t last long. Mr. Neutra grabbed my elbow and said we had a lot more interiors to do, but I tore away from his grasp and ran outside to set up the camera. I knew exactly where I wanted to stand.

Inside, the floor lamps and the table lamps were all burning. Outside the sky was beautiful and I asked Mr. Kaufman, who was standing there with Mrs. Kaufman and Neutra, to turn on the pool light. But the light was too intense and it was facing in the direction of the camera so I laid down a mat and asked Mrs. Kaufman to please lie down a moment so her head blocked the pool light. She asked me not to take too long because it was hard propping herself up on her elbow.
I counted the three seconds.

One. Two. Three.

Did Neutra know what you were trying to do?

Not ‘til later.

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