WORDS – DOMINIC BRADBURY
Photographer Julius Shulman captured California at its best. It was Shulman, as much as anyone, who helped shape the idea of Californian living as a dreamlike state of architectural sophistication, peopled by beautiful families with sleek automobiles tucked under a designer car port. Shulman has worked all over the world, but is most connected with the place that is his home and with the Modernist architecture of the 1940s, '50s and '60s which he did so much to promote, merchandise and convey through crisp, succulent images that made you want to step into this world of innocent, idyllic glamour.
Shulman has photographed all kinds of buildings and at 97 years old continues to do so. But it was his photographs of houses by the likes of Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner and other hugely influential Californian Modernists that spread the word about the original possibilities offered by this new kind of architecture, born in a spirit of post-war optimism. With the great resurgence of interest in all things mid-century Modern – from buildings to furniture to lamps – the interest in Shulman has also taken off again and he is still much in demand, collaborating these days with photographer Juergen Nogai.
This month, Shulman's work is celebrated in a big and beautiful brick of a book from Taschen called Julius Shulman: Modernism Rediscovered. Actually this is three volumes totalling 1000 pages, gathered in a neat slip case, which presents a segment of Shulman's vast archive – now held by the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles – selected by publisher Benedikt Taschen. Here we have classics by masters like Craig Ellwood and Albert Frey but also buildings by architects whose work we don't know so well, such as Pereira & Luckman, Gregory Ain and William Beckett among projects spanning the States and well beyond. The new book is, in itself, an ambitious follow up to an earlier Taschen book of the same title which came out in 2000 and which helped remind us of the extraordinary atmospheric quality of the pictures taken by this godfather of architectural photography.
Shulman's pioneering work placed his architectural subjects within the landscape – elegantly exploring the connections between interior and exterior, architecture and nature, that were so important to the Californian Modernists – while also bringing these buildings alive. When Shulman began work in 1936 he famously introduced people and pets into his shots, which became dramatic moments captured in time. They were – as Benedikt Taschen suggests in his introduction to the new book – like a movie still with the building itself playing the leading part.
"I was able to perceive that it wasn't just a master of translating an architect's work photographically," says Shulman. "It was about infusing something more into the pictures. It was about going beyond what the architect saw in their own work, to transfigure and transcend. It was unusual to use people in architectural photography when I first began. Richard Neutra didn't like me using people in the pictures because he felt they distracted attention from his architecture. It was a short sited thought and finally he realised I was right. I have always been certain to make people understand that I'm right – I know what I'm doing."
It was Shulman's friend and long time collaborator Richard Neutra who played a key part in his decision to become a photographer in the first place. In his mid-twenties Shulman had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, drifting in and out of university in LA and Berkeley. He was taken to see Neutra's Kun House in 1936 by a mutual friend and took some shots with a handheld Eastman camera.
"When Neutra saw the photographs he wanted to meet me," Shulman says. "So I was taken down to meet him on Saturday, March 5th, 1936. He said "what are you, a photographer? Have you studied architecture or photography?" I had studied nothing, I had no idea what to do with my life. He asked me if I would like to do some more photography for him and that's when I became a photographer, that's how it all began."
For Shulman taking pictures has become such a natural and instinctive process that he doesn't use a light metre and remains confident in his own finely tuned talents, even as he approaches his centennial. "It's a blessing," he says. "When I see a building I look at the light and read the light and I can just tell how much exposure to make. I know nature. I'm a boy scout from training and I understand the beauty of natural light."
As well as the Taschen project, there is also a documentary film being completed on Shulman's life, work and travels by Eric Bricker, with narration by Dustin Hoffman and contributions from admirers like Tom Ford. There's also a new exhibition of his work coming up next February at the Palm Springs Art Museum, celebrating Shulman's particular association with the dessert city and its wealth of Modernist gems, including Neutra's Kaufmann House which features in some of Shulman's best known shots.
As he enjoys this golden age, Shulman remains enthused about his art and optimistic about contemporary architecture, still happy to photograph new buildings which he suggests are getting better all the time, drawing on the lessons of the early masters whose work he documented decades ago. "The newer breed of architects have more imagination, more perception in their achievement of architectural composition," he says. "They don't just cleave to Modernism – they have transformed it and refined it for present day life."
Living in a Raphael Soriano-designed house and studio built in 1950 in Los Angeles, he remains intimately linked to the state with which he is so associated. He lectures and has founded the Shulman Institute at Woodbury University in Burbank, spreading the word and playfully drinking in the adulation that he now receives from all quarters.
"It turned out I was destined – in every sense of the word – to become a photographer," he says. "I had the built in ability to create architectural compositions that were meaningful and I have never stopped since."
Julius Shulman: Modernism Rediscovered, Taschen, £200.