The Work Of Julius Shulman Photography Essay

5541 words (22 pages) Essay

1st Jan 1970 Photography Reference this


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“The photographer assumes a role of tremendous responsibility in reporting literally as a communicator. The mind dexterity and the ability of the person with the camera can become the vehicle by which the image of architecture can be transferred to publications and the people of the world.”

It is a general assumption that the architectural experience is bound to the architectural work and to the direct encounter with it. Architecture is inherently seen as an experience of which you must be present for, live in or use day to day. The experience is bound to the subject’s immediate association with the work – its “here and now”. For that exact same reason the experience can neither be copied nor reproduced exactly like another persons work. However those not directly involved in the profession and even those involved often base their whole understanding and knowledge of architectural works solely on the reading of representations. During the 20th century photography more than any other technique of representation became a decisive factor for our relationship with and understanding of architecture.

“Success in architectural photography requires an unusual blend of training, background, temperament and personality that has been little discussed.”

Any art form, even if based on rational and technological conditions can when sensitively applied by an artist become the zeitgeist of the era. Julius Shulman makes photographs that reproduce other people’s work and promotes their work effortlessly. How he achieves this so successfully is what interests me. Everybody emphasizes the fact that a photograph can be reproduced and seen by millions, while a minority of people would know the original building first hand. What is important to me is that if the photographer is an artist they must create a new dimension to their work if they want to succeed or standout in their field. When an art form is immediately accessible to millions through equipment alone it takes special skills to hone in on the craft and excel in the field.

Julius Shulman was born in New York on October 10th 1910 and died at his home in Los Angeles, California on Wednesday, July 15, 2009; he was 98 years old. Shulman was a renowned architectural photographer best known for his photography of the californian modernist movement .Not only did his work spread the modernist movement around the world at the time but it also garnered it a new appreciation in the early 1990’s. The period I am most interested in is between 1930-1960 when some of his most prolific work was produced focusing on Californian modernism.

Julius Shulman’s first experience with the Californian desert region came in 1926, when he was 16 years old. He and some teammates on his high school gymnastics team in Los Angeles camped and hiked in canyons around Palm Springs, this connection to the vast natural resources informed his professional work documenting the desert’s architectural treasures.

For seventy years, Shulman amassed the most comprehensive visual chronology of modern architecture and the development of Los Angeles, photographing architecture by Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, and Frank Lloyd Wright amongst many others, and going much further to photograph the emerging petrol stations, movie palaces, and markets of Los Angeles. he documented the changing city over many years which is now stored at the Getty institute in Los angeles.

“Times have changed; equipment has changed; and architectural photography has changed. Today architectural photographs are more a bridge of communication than they are works of art. “

Julius Shulman simply viewed the camera as a ‘box with an eye’. His view that the architecture should take precedence over the photo and that the purpose of an architectural photograph may be ‘documentary, interpretive, or both but it is seldom the pure art of photography. It may, in the best examples reach this level but only when it first fulfills its purpose as an architectural photograph.’

In this dissertation i hope to analyse what role Shulman played in the spread of Californian modern architecture along with how he influenced architectural photography at the time which has created his legacy.

Shulman’s Methodology

In this chapter I will look at Shulmans work methodology and briefly touch on the equipment he used during the early modernist period. From the many people who have seen Shulman at work the evidently clear opinion emerges that to view him at work revealed much more than simply viewing his finished work. Shulman’s quick fired nature when taking photographs with one shot negative black and white and one transparency in colour got him the name “one shot Shulman”

“The manner in which he dressed a scene revealed his desire for a very active image area in which there were no “dead spots” where the interest level of a viewer might drop off.”

One of his more unusual methodologies was his choice of spots to take a photograph. Rather than extensively analyse the location and test shoot from a multitude of various angles and locations he simply looked around briefly and picked a spot. This walk to spot method assessing which was best almost immediately adds to mythos of his work and methods.

Jay Jorgensen stated while observing Shulman that “The hallmark of Shulman’s work is to find and exploit the most dramatic lines in structure”.

Again his ability to enter and appoint the best views very quickly is baffling to the majority of professional photographers even to this day.

Some of his most famous images were taken with when compared to todays technology what would be seen as very rudimentary cameras. His photograph of the Kaufmann house was taken with an old Eastmann master view camera and a primitive Schneider Angulon Lense. However this is one of the most widely published photographs of contemporary architecture in the world.

Although very open to technology especially in his later work Shulman was always wary of over reliance on technology something which is hotly debated in all aspects of architecture today. In his book ‘The photography of architecture’ and design Shulman’s view was that the photographer should explore all types of equipment in depth and how experimentation is key before deciding on the direction of their work and type of camera.

” A photographer should think twice before investing in “the best”. I urge you to consider personal needs and experiences first. Ideally the best should be pursued, but a tool is only as good as its user”.

Shulman’s Favourite Photograph

Every artist, designer or creative mind has a favourite piece of work that they cherish. Surprisingly of all of Shulman’s photographs one of the most unusual and out of character from the bulk of his work strikes resonance with Shulman the most. Having photographed a striking cotton tree leaf Shulman had found while Golfing, it formed one of his most visionary concepts. He used it in Urban Design schools and Schools of Architecture to describe and illustrate how man can relate to nature. Shulman sees the leaf as the ultimate analogy of how developers should plan out their developments. The need to design a community within a framework in this case which he designates at the outer line of the leaf.

The occupants of the development shouldn’t trespass onto the nature beyond the leafs shape but let the leaf instead dictate the highways, boulevards and side streets with its veins. The small capillaries dictate where the people should live and the big masses show where the public buildings or large apartments can be built. The message here is to not go beyond the shape of the leaf but instead let all beyond be nature.

He saw the land beyond as more valuable to the people living in the community if they can look out on it as nature , trees and the environment. To be left alone by man however Shulman was not against developers but merely wanted to highlight that developers should not act in a away that would put people off why they wanted to live there in the first place.

Shulman when recently interviewed before his death was a little perplexed by the current mania for all things sustainable and the recent influx of its influence in contemporary architecture.

“We’ve always had green-those of us who are concerned with the environment,” he says. “So why should we suddenly discover that green is good?” When asked why Koenig never talked about his architecture as sustainable, Shulman says, “In the fifties and sixties it was done automatically. The term green meant you related to the environment. That’s all green means: you are the environment.”

“The reason why this architecture photographs so beautifully is the environmental consideration exercised by the architects,” Shulman says. “It was the sense that here we have beautiful canyons, hillsides, views of the ocean. Everyone loves these photographs because the houses are environmentally involved, and this was before the emphasis on what everyone is calling green.”

Figure 1 – Learning Urban Planning from Nature, A dry leaf found in Yucca Valley, California

Framing the Californian lifestyle

Neutra and the many other California modernists added a new representation of the extravagant lifestyle being advertised in California, their choice of materials glass, patios that blurred the interior with exterior, sliding doors, and flat roofs where an accurate portrayal of the free spirited lifestyle available in this climate. California , Los Angeles and Palm Springs were at the forefront of the new wave of Modern Architecture that merged inside and outside which was a radical concept at the time. merging the buildings into their sites using topography, light and view while featuring groundbreaking new ideas of “form following function” and even “ornament is crime”.

Throughout america there are many different photographers synonymous with various different cities. Art Shay documented Chicago’s streets intimately delving into the goings on of individual neighborhoods while Arthur Fellig also known as ‘Weegee’ documented New York with impeccable detail. Los Angeles known for its sparse street life it becomes clear that the photographer most associated with it instead looked into the private spaces framing the Californian lifestyle. The documenting outdoor kitchen areas and unusual shaped pools strengthened the allure of California’s to everyone in post war America.

Shulman was a great believer in the ‘California dreaming’ that emerged post war, ignoring the at times ‘mean’ streets of Los Angeles instead focusing on the continual sunshine seen in all his work and luminous twilights. Embodying the prevalent optimism of an architecture seemingly morphing into lifestyle and above all architecture as a product to be sold through his images.,”Shulmans photographs go beyond the simple facts of the building fabric to propose a blueprint for living.”

Shulman portrayed something directly influential on the viewer. It was the idea of what it’s like to occupy a modern house. Shulman’s photographs are not innate objects of beauty in themselves or direct duplications of the stunning buildings; they are inviting, compelling images that allow the viewer to imagine themselves the scene. An architectural photograph is seen to evoke three possible desires: “I want that photograph,” “I want that building,” or “I want that life.” Shulman’s best work evokes all three. He shattered the common misconception that modernism was cold and calculated. An unfriendly aesthetic suited for clinical, industrial or commercial buildings. He personalised the buildings in an attempt to sell the architecture and Californian style to the viewers.

“The photographer cannot possibly learn a how-to procedure; but you must learn how to take advantage of the full gamut of experience available to you.”

The ambition in California and the west coast in general architecturally takes a very different form to that of the East coast. Take New York where the upward dominance of the skyscraper was the focus and identity of the city. The Californian aesthetic was horizontally driven, promoting the fact there was room for everyone to construct an individual marker throughout the landscape Shulman identified this motif and exploited it to his advantage through his work and California as a whole.

Shulmans legacy remains in california even though he travelled the world photographing many famous piece of architecture his heart was always in California. His own house which he commissioned Raphael Soriano to design in 1947. Unsurprisingly the design was modern steel construction which also included a purpose built photography studio for Shulman. Garrett Eckbo designed the surrounding landscape the entire site has remained unaltered since its completion in 1950. The house was inducted as a Historic cultural monument by the city of Los Angeles in 1987.

Figure 2 – Shulman House, Raphael Soriano, 1950

Human Occupancy

One of Shulman’s prominent features of his photography was the integration of people within his architectural photography. In the early years after photography was invented in 1839, the exposure time required to capture all the architectural details of, a complicated ornamental building on the photographic plate was very long. People were viewed as an unnecessary complication as they could not guarantee to stand still for the entire duration of the shot. This practical barring of people eventually developed into a widely accepted rule brought up by Wim de Wit ” if one wanted to be taken seriously as an architectural photographer, one should keep people outside the frame of the camera. “

“This attitude towards architectural photography was largely unchanged in the 1930s or ’40s when Shulman took up the camera. Modernist architects at that time considered space, massing, texture and color to be the primary tangible determinants for how a building functioned.”

Photographers were under pressure to promote these aspects rather than how people interacted with the building design. Shulman’s approach therefore was unorthodox at the time, he ignored the stereotypical modernist principle of vacant images. He was not interested in wall details or moody empty rooms. Instead, he wanted to show the viewer of his photographs that modern Californian architecture, in spite of its lack of traditional ornament, was livable and an interesting exciting lifestyle choice.

“Julius Shulman is blessed with the gift of perception – the eye that sees! – and with it he has become our visual historian. For over 50 years he has shown us how experience can interact with ideas through images. He is what the Greeks had in mind when they said, ‘the soul is like the eye, it never thinks without an image.”

The mood of the Kaufmann house seen in figure 1 located in Palm Springs California was captured through a long process of time exposures and careful darkroom manipulation. However one of its stand out features is the occupation in this photo of a lady lounging at the pool. Even at the time this divided architects and photographers alike over whether it was diluting the effect of the building with this distraction or ultimately enhancing the reception of the building.

Shulman in an interview stated “I used her to cover the light in the pool, because the photograph was shot on bulb,”, this refers to the camera setting in which the shutter can stay open for a long period of time, unbelievably forty five minutes of an exposure. Its these types of intricate use of people and alternative techniques that add to the photographic art that Shulman is seen to pioneer.

Figure 3 – Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, 1947, Richard Neutra, Architect

“Before Julius Shulman arrived on the scene, architectural photography provided exactly what the term implies: photographs of buildings. Such photographs might show single buildings, or groups of buildings, or buildings surrounded by natural landscape; human beings were generally not included.”

To a certain effect the process has come full circle with a dramatic increase of architectural photography today lacking occupants in the finished buildings publicity shots. Are architects preferring to entice people into their buildings by showing the empty spaces and letting the visitors imagine visiting rather than prescribing their experience there with people within the initial shots.

When beginning a photograph Shulman asks the overlying question what does the house represent? His view is that the easiest way to go about portraying the house is through an overall objective full view photograph. However he comments on the pictorial area on the far right of the photo figure 1. The more pictorial architecture elements attached to the living space located there draws the viewers attention and should be the focus of the photograph

Another of his successful portrayals of occupancy was the case study house 20 by Buff, Straub and Hensman 1958 figure (?). Shulmans attention to minute detail stemmed as far as telling the young lady in the photo exactly what position to hold the glass aloft which he states was of the utmost importance to the success of the overall photograph. ” It makes all the difference in the world where her hand was placed”.

Figure 4 – Case Study House 20, Atladena , 1958, Buff , Straub and Hensman

Relationship with architects

To understand Shulman’s photographs you need to understand the close bonds Shulman had with the architects involved and his passion for their work. although having no formal training in architecture through these relationships his architectural vocabulary grew along with his natural photographic abilities.

After world war two, book publishers and magazine editors were scrambling for material to fill their publications. Television was still in its infancy allowing the magazine with its diverse subject range and ever changing topics to attract architectural photography. It was during this time a new source of assignments emerged and with it photo journalism was born which enabled Shulman to strike up relationships with many architects while traveling on assignments. Shulman cemented friendships while exposing and engaging people in the architects work through the medium of photography.

Richard Neutra

Southern California Richard Neutra is seen as having developed an especially appropriate regional architecture, adding a new dimensions to the several regional design systems in that area. His traits which were inspired from simple post and beam construction, were exceptionally modern when applied to residential architecture, his design ethos came into its full range.

Transforming buildings into icons, transforming steel and glass into reproducible images, that connected to the viewer yet seemed frozen in time was the challenge set by Californian modernism. Julius Shulman stepped up and took this role, upon meeting Neutra in 1936. One of Neutra’s apprentices was boarding with Shulman’s sister, and he took young Shulman along on a visit to the visually stunning and nearly complete Kun House. (figure 5).

Shulman, then an student who’d been auditing courses at Berkeley and UCLA for seven years not really sure what his career path would be, shot photos of the crisp white house, using his pocket camera and a tripod. When Neutra saw the snapshots, he realised Shulmans special talent, “an ability to capture the aesthetic and emotional intention of designs.”

The photographer Edward Weston “fell in love with stunning cracks in buckly plaster,”

Neutra complained. “His wonderful photos could have served as evidence in court against a plastering contractor.”

Understandably, the architect preferred Shulman’s idealized portraits. Its the stories of each photo that can at times add so much to Shulmans work, especially when digital technology is so widespread today. The details that had to be considered and sheer effort that had to be taken for a singular shot was incredible.

For the next thirty-four years, until Neutra’s death in 1970, the two collaborated. Through his work with Neutra, Shulman met other California modernists, including Pierre Koenig, Rudolf Schindler, Gregory Ain, Gordon Drake and Frank Lloyd. The architects created the buildings and concepts, but Shulman created the pictures that would communicate and interpret the buildings to the general public. It is important to look at the relationships between the architect and Shulman along with the images that made them famous and captured their essence.

Figure 5 – Kauffmann House

Figure 6- Kun House , Neutra

Figure 7 – Treweek Residence , Neutra

Pierre Koenig

The architecture of Pierre Koenig, demonstrated an elegance formed from design process that merged plan, structure and nature into a single calming experience. With the use of steel and glass he evolved fresh and exciting solutions to some of the notoriously difficult aesthetic and structural problems at the time.

One of his first houses made from steel and glass built in 1950 launched him on an internationally acclaimed career. When Arts and Architecture magazine was seeking inventive architects for their Case Study Houses, they chose Koenig to design Case Study House 22.

Over the years Case Study House 22 has become an iconic symbol of Southern California living. It is a spectacular house soaring above the city below, with long cantilevered roof and floor overhangs that extend the viewer’s line of vision to the distant ocean and the horizon beyond. This appealed and at the same time challenged Shulman to produce one of his most famous images.

Shulmans photograph of the Case Study House 22 The architecture critic Paul Goldberger called the photograph “one of those singular images that sums up an entire city at a moment in time.”

In an interview with ‘Shelter’ Shulman recollected what a unique experience the shoot actually was.Whilst visiting the house with two young ladies who were sitting in the living room when Shulman began, the shot was initially to be an interior shot, however when Shulman exited to get a breath of air he observed the girls sitting with the furniture being illuminated, with the view outdoors to Los Angeles. Shulman ran into the house and brought camera out to change the composition, multiple exposures was taken due to the interior lights being circular, flood lights where needed to make the girls visible with instant exposure. He turned off all the lights in house and flood lights were taken out and flash bulbs were put in instead for instant exposure. Shulman the called the called girls and said to sit in darkness for a short time to allow the exposure to burn the city lights into the negative, a few moments later a flash bulb went off recording them in the scene.

” But somehow that one scene expresses what architecture is all about. What if I hadn’t gone outside to see the view? I would have missed a historic photograph, and more than that, we would have missed the opportunity to introduce this kind of architecture to the world.”

Rudolph Schindler

Schindler is seen as the least understood of the American pioneers of modern architecture. In the 1930s Schindler used a skin construction as opposed to a structural skeleton, because of the flexibility by which forms might be organized without having to respect a structural grid. Through this freedom, he felt, modern architecture might achieve what the past had referred to as “style.”

Schindler contacted Shulman as a result of his successful work with Neutra. Shulman described his relationship with Schindler as a cordial one. Schindler never attended an assignment with Shulman personally. He provided him with essential critiques of his photographs. Shulman recalled a critique of a photograph of Schindler’s Daughterly house in Santa Monica.

Schindler challenged Shulman on his over use of flood lights whilst photographing illustrating his point by showing Shulman naturally illuminated walls differentiating angular light. Shulman was always open to criticism and expanded and broadened his skills and knowledge from the top architects he encountered.

Neutra was the first architect Shulman had met and all his photographs had been accepted with additions requested. This impressed Schindler resulting in Schindler asking Shulman to photograph the Fitzpatrick House in Los Angeles, in 1937 (figure 11+12). This was a fine example of Schindler’s spatial ideas of form and movement. In his later projects, some of the crispness of his earlier work was lost as the overall forms became more fragmented.

Shulman went on to photograph many of Schindler’s work including one of Schindler’s finest houses Buck House 1934 (Figure 13). The L-shaped plan with changes in ceiling height which allowed Shulman to exploit the diagonal views. The Large glazed sections open out to the south garden area.

Gregory Ain

Ain’s interest in group housing for middle- and low-income families began in his 1937 Dunsmuir Flats. Shulmans image of the four staggered two-story white blocks, the ceiling levels defined by continuous ribbon windows exemplify his design ethos. The panel-post construction was an early effort to reduce cost and was radical at the time. Ain adapted many contractors’ practices for large or small houses to save construction time and reduce cost. Gregory Ain was seen as the first architect in California to refine the low-cost house. This was exemplified in his Dunsmuir Apartments figure (15).

Shulmans photographs enabled the work of pioneers like Ain to be eagerly accepted into professional journals. Shulman commented on how the editors themselves were learning as a result of his photographs to select and present the results of his work. Ain’s houses impressed the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) greatly and that they commissioned him to design a house in New York on the museum grounds (figure 15). It furthered his workable efficient design ethos and brought his work to a larger audience a recurring effect of Shulmans photographs

Gordon Drake

Shulman regarded Gordon Drake as a massively overlooked architect and integral to the progression of modern architecture. Although his career was short Drake won many international awards. Shulman cherished their friendship greatly recalling their first meeting in 1946 having been called to Drakes house (figure 16+17) in West Los Angeles. Shulman met his ‘crew’ who shulman described as

” All were filled with enthusiasm, possessing a fervor to perform fulfilling architecture , inspired by the spirit of Drake’.

Shulman fell in love with the house and what it represented discovering that Drakes design was one of

“the most ingenious assemblies ever to confront me; the photography of which was one of the most joyous and rewarding episodes of my ten years association with architecture”.

The year the photograph was taken 1946 was the year progressive architecture magazine was running a competition for ‘recognition of architects attempting to improve contemporary standards’. In a massively over confident manoeuver Shulman placed a copy of the magazine in the shots of the house which went on to won the award as foretold by Shulman himself.

Shulman cherished both his friendship with Drake and his association with what he called

” a man of brilliant expression, whose designs where not only functional , but adhered so favorably to his clients needs.”

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright, was seen as the leader for American modern architecture around the world. He understood human needs and applied them to his work. Above all he sought repose, a peaceful environment free of stress which catered to the mental health and happiness of the occupants. Shulman has been compared to Wright as their work seems to become more accessible over time rather than instantaneously upon completion.

In 1950 Shulman met Wright for the first time at the Taliesin West seen in figure (18) where Wright allowed him free reign to wander and snap photos unaccompanied which suited Shulmans work ethos very well.

“My broad knowledge of current architecture and my acquaintance with scores of architects throughout the nation and numbers abroad seemed to arouse his curiosity.”

It was this that bonded the pair and a lot of discussion between the two was on the topic the relationships of architects and clients and how streamlining the interactions can have a great effect on the outcome. Shulman had at first regarded Wright from here say from other sources as a ‘belligerent, angry person’. Wright did not deny these claims, however pointed out that the sources had probably never met him in person. Shulman had achieved what very few have ever with Wright that of engaging in personal discussions noting that “our spontaneous bond resulted from smooth – flowing stream of objectivity”.

Shulman allowed Wright to freely evaluate any photos he obtained from the buildings upon completion at the V.C Morris building figure (20+21). He allowed Wright to study them closely. Upon finding a good one Wright exclaimed ” at last someone understands in a photograph, my statement – you have penetrated the spirit of my design!”

One of Shulmans famous Frank Lloyd Wright photographs of the Guggenheim interior was commented on by an Architectural historian , during a visit to his studio. “Often one photograph creates a fulfilling statement. This one says it all.” Figure (22)

Due to Shulmans hands on close relationships with the architects that he worked with Shulman was often asked what differences have struck him about the many modernist architects he has worked with diverse designs from the likes of Neutra and Wright. His response was one of indifference he didn’t see each designers ideas as radically different. He would compose a scene as long as he could identify with the individuals theme. The love of the building itself was integral to Shulmans work he chose his buildings and shot only subjects he enjoyed or related to.

The ‘close up’

From looking at Shulmans relationship with architects you can see that his personality and persona was as famous as his work. He was a skilled networker and socialite rather than a pedantic mysterious photographer. He blurred the lines of professional conduct with his friendships with clients. Shulmans extremely confident demeanor aided him greatly in the success of his work. Shulman was never afraid to self publicise and right up to his death was a fervent fan of his own work. If Shulman isn’t the guest of honour, he is the moment he walks in the door. He assumes he will have an audience, and he’s always right.

In 1997, Benedikt Taschen responsible for the ‘one hit Shulman’ nickname purchased Lautner’s, Chemosphere House, the eight-sided flying saucer that Shulman photographed, and it is where he stays when not in Miami or Cologne. Taschen said that if Shulman had not photographed the buildings featured in his extensive books catalogues, many of which have been razed, the world would never have known them.

Figure 23 – Lautners Chemosphere

Shulman is know to say yes to any opportunity to speak about himself, his work , Los Angeles, architecture or art. He is known for his ability to talk for hours and no matter how many people are there or the subject matter the conversation always centers around him. Shulman identified a problem in architecture that has plagued the profession since its conception. He quipped that it was “the worlds greatest problem is lack of communication, It leads to wars and failed marriages.”

The overuse of words also riled the photographer, som

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