Legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman died of heart failure Wednesday night at his home in Los Angeles. He was 98. In his career, which spanned eight decades, Shulman became arguably the most famous architectural photographer in the world, and he is credited with spreading California Modernism and its ideals of structural purity and outdoor living to an international audience.
Shulman, born in Brooklyn on October 10, 1910, died just two months shy of his 99th birthday, and—with the exception of a short-lived retirement during the rise of Postmodernism (which he detested)—had been continuously working around the world until the beginning of this year, when his health had begun to decline. In his later years he collaborated with German photographer Juergen Nogai.
As a testament to Shulman’s amazing body of work, the Getty Research Institute’s Julius Shulman photography archive, which stretches from the 1930s to 1997, contains over 260,000 negatives, prints, transparencies, and related printed matter.
“He loved it. He absolutely loved it,” Judy McKee, Shulman’s daughter, said of her father’s work in an interview today. “He lived a charmed life.”
After growing up on a farm in Connecticut (where his family had moved when Shulman was a toddler), he moved to Los Angeles just before entering his teens and immediately fell in love with the area—its wide-open landscapes, new buildings, and endless possibilities.
After getting his start working with Richard Neutra, his career blossomed along with Modernism itself, and with the dynamic image of California, where the American dream seemed freshest and most attainable. He loved Modernism and its genuineness, lightness, and open embrace of the landscape around it, said McKee, and he loved promoting the movement to a wider audience that had once been wary of it.
“He completely changed our perspective,” said Pierluigi Serraino, who authored Modernism Rediscovered, Taschen’s famous book series containing many of Shulman’s most iconic pictures. "He made Modernism more benevolent to the public eye. He understood the media and consumerism, and building images of yourself and of others.”
Working in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and across the country, his list of clients grew to become a rundown of the most famous Modernist architects ever to work in the United States. Among them were Neutra, John Lautner, Pierre Koenig (Shulman’s shots of Koenig’s glass-walled Case Study House #22 perched over the Hollywood Hills are still his most famous), Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, Gregory Ain, Albert Frey, Bruce Goff, Raphael Soriano (who built Shulman’s house), and Rudolph Schindler, to name just a small few. He started working with many before they became renowned, and his eye for talent eventually made him one of the great architectural tastemakers of the 20th century.
But he also relished capturing the work of lesser-known architects, documenting thousands of somewhat anonymous spaces. His voluminous corporate work included shots of shopping centers, construction sites, department stores, factories, schools, furniture showrooms, stadiums—basically any building form there was.
Likely the biggest secret to his success, and to his longevity, was his passion for architecture, and how it shaped our lives.
“We’re involved in architecture from birth to death. You’re born in a hospital most likely designed by an architect. But then when you die—a mortuary, designed by an architect. That’s the story of architecture,” Shulman said in an interview in the recent documentary Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman.
Anne Blecksmith, who curates Shulman’s archive at the Getty, spoke about Shulman’s intense, passionate, even spiritual “connection to space.”
“His images gave you an understanding of a space through visual osmosis. You start seeing beyond the photograph,” she said. She noted his love of visiting, exploring, and documenting new architecture, almost like a visual anthropologist. “Sometimes the documentation is so extensive you wonder if they needed to kick him out.”
Serraino said he was astounded at Shulman’s attention to detail. “The placement of a napkin, of a cherry, of a subliminal object was so phenomenally calculated in a matter of seconds,” he said. “He could tell you so many things with his pictures—concurrent processes were happening. He was thinking about composition and site line and the relationships of objects to one another and to light and shadows.”
And the resulting whole was always so much more than its component parts. "He knew how to find the eye-stopper," Serraino continued. "He believed that we were flooded with images so it was ever more challenging to get someone to stop what they were doing to look at a photograph,” he said.
Along with an understanding and love for space, Shulman also had a gift for capturing magical moments in time, a skill that can be rare in the exacting world of architectural photography. “It was like a portrait of an environment,” Blecksmith said. “Sontag said photo is like a slice of time. I think he really sensed that. He took a 35 mm sensibility to the large format, and created incredible moments.”
He was also able to inject humor and life into his pictures, making models (who were often homeowners, not professionals, and who are still a rare sight in architectural photography) feel at ease, and even making mannequins seem to come to life.
Shulman developed similarly intimate connections with people as he did with spaces, not only befriending, and working, with some of the greatest architects of the 20th century, but cultivating business connections and charming visitors at his house in Laurel Canyon right up to last year. He would answer his own phone, which was listed in the phone book, and he put a Porsche sticker on his walker, joking about taking the sports car out for a spin when he got up from a conversation. His humor and stubbornness not only informed his pictures, but made him one of the most unforgettable, and sought out, characters in Los Angeles.
His passion reached to the city at large. Shulman was an avid environmentalist, and spent years fighting sprawl, insensitive urban renewal, and the dominance of developer-driven architecture. He enjoyed camping, and exploring Los Angeles, McKee explained. He focused on photographic education later in his life, supporting the foundation of the Julius Shulman Institute at Woodbury University, an archive and education center.
For all these reasons and so many more, Shulman will forever be a fixture of architecture, and of American culture. “A light has gone out in LA," Serraino said. "He was the last survivor of his era. The magnitude of Julius’ work is yet to be appraised. It’s something that’s going to take quite a while to absorb.”
Asked what his legacy would be years from now, McKee said she was sure of one thing: “They’ll know about him, that’s for sure.”
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In AN 15_09.19.2007, Richard Barnes interviewed Julius Shulman about his life, work, and fame.