Edie Cohen -- Interior Design, 12/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Raphael Soriano, Frank Lloyd Wright. An impressive client list, to say the very least. These icons of modern architecture compose the oeuvre of 93-year-old Julius Shulman, who's spent his career chronicling their vision through the lens of his camera. Besides bringing these architects' projects to the public eye, Shulman has also helped to keep them vivid across the passage of time.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1910—10/10/10, to be exact—Shulman moved to Los Angeles with his family as a boy. At 19, he entered the University of California, Los Angeles, and audited classes for four years. In 1933, for his 23rd birthday, he received a Kodak Vest Pocket camera and set off for Berkeley. "I bummed around, taking pictures of campus buildings," he says. "Nothing then indicated a professional interest in photography." '
All that changed upon Shulman's return to L.A. in 1936—kismet playing a major role. Not only was Shulman's sister Shirley neighbors with Neutra, but his apprentice was also renting a room in her house. " 'Who's Mr. Neutra?' I remember asking the man," says Shulman, who'd never met an architect before.
He got his answer at a recently completed Neutra residence in Laurel Canyon, where he set his Vest Pocket on a tripod and took six pictures. After the architect saw the 8-by-10 prints, he immediately referred Shulman to colleague Raphael Soriano, who was building his first house. "I had my first two clients in one day," Shulman recalls.
His early images adhered to the same principles his photography follows today. Composition is based on the juncture between two diagonals or dynamic symmetry. To cross-light interior views, he uses strobe supplements, never umbrellas.
More than technical virtuosity, however, Shulman's photography is about soul and context. "I depict the story behind each scene," he says. His shot of Koenig's Case Study House 22 is a world-renowned cultural commentary. A 1959 shot of Koenig's Case Study House 21 landed on the cover of Interior Design in December 1999, appearing as fresh as ever.
Exhibitions of his work, too numerous to count, span the 1940's to the present. The Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, California, is his exclusive representative, and the roll call of worldwide shows includes the Photographers' Gallery in London, the Stefan Vogdt Galerie der Moderne in Munich, Galerie Thierry Marlat in Paris, the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco, and Yancey Richardson, New York.
Although Shulman "retired" in 1989, with the advent of postmodernism, he's busier than ever. Three books are in progress. My Odyssey, slated for a 2004 publication by Taschen, consists of 1,000 illustrations on 400 pages—and the $1,500 price tag seems no deterrent. "We've already presold 17, one to Brad Pitt," Shulman reports. A book on Malibu, under the Harry N. Abrams imprint, is due in 2005; another, on regionalism, is in the planning stages.
Shulman recently took up his camera again to shoot José Rafael Moneo's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in L.A. At Woodbury University's School of Architecture and Design in Burbank, he's involved in establishing the Julius Shulman Institute, which aims to analyze housing needs and ultimately create built projects.
Shulman is also an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects and the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the International Center of Photography, New York. What is this multigenerational hero's advice to the current crop of young architects? "Don't use anything your client won't understand," he declares. "Avoid theatrics."