November 15, 2007
The photographer who defined urban L.A.
(Page 2 - Previous Page)In 1920, Los Angeles was a small town with a population of 576,000. Shulman recalls that "living in Los Angeles in those years, no one had cars. We walked to school, my father walked to Temple Street."
At that time, Boyle Heights was becoming the Brooklyn of Los Angeles, that is to say, a thriving neighborhood for Jews. Shulman's father decided to move New York Dry Goods to a new building being built on the appropriately named Brooklyn Avenue (That same street is today called, also appropriately, Cesar E. Chavez Avenue). It was the only dry goods store in the neighborhood and became a success. "We lived a good life."
More important to Shulman was that he was able to find a way to reconnect with nature and the outdoors by joining the Boy Scouts at age 12.
"It saved my life," he says today.
The troop met at a Methodist church in Boyle Heights on St. Louis Street and camped out on a large plot of land in the Hollywood Hills that had been donated by Arthur Letts, the man who founded the Broadway department store.
In 1923, Shulman's bar mitzvah was at the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights. That same year, his father died suddenly at the age of 45. Shulman recalls that "my older brother and I went to the shul for yahrtzeit twice a day, early morning and late afternoon, for a year."
"Our background is a very Yiddishe background," Shulman said. "I remember to this day how my mother always observed all the Jewish holidays. Passover is a perfect example. Chametz -- clear out all the dishes. We ate a very strict diet to relate to practice," Shulman said (which I took to mean they kept kosher).
His mother and brothers and sisters worked in the store and continued to make it a success (the store prospered even during the Depression). However, he was more interested in being on his own -- hiking and camping. In 11th grade, as a high school elective, Shulman, who had been closed out of an arts course, took a photography workshop, using the family Kodak Brownie. He got an A, but at the time, his ham radio set held more interest.
After graduating high school, Shulman enrolled at UCLA. In 1929, UCLA opened its Westwood campus, and Shulman drove the 15 miles there from Boyle Heights in a Model T Ford he bought for $38. He started out studying engineering, but after his first year, he didn't re-register and instead just audited classes.
He was in his own words, "just bumming around." As he entered his fourth year of classes at UCLA, his sister gave him a gift of a Kodak "vest pocket" camera. Shulman's first photos were of nature, of hikers, of friends and of his mother.
He recalls taking her picture: "She's sitting by the kitchen window in our house, standing there, working over the sink, and I'm sitting on a chair there nearby." Looking at that same image today, Shulman marveled at the photo -- as a work of portraiture. "It's got everything," he said.
When Milton Goldberg, a friend from UCLA, announced that he was moving to Berkeley to get his master's degree, he invited Shulman to join him and audit classes there. This was Shulman's first experience living apart from his brothers and sisters, "a very private, wonderful life."
With his vest pocket camera, Shulman continued to take occasional photos. They were not snapshots. From the beginning, he used a tripod to stage his images. He entered photo contests, took pictures for a clothing store and sold photos at an on-campus store. But he still had no professional ambition.
When he returned to Los Angeles in 1936, he considered getting a job as a gardener in Griffith Park. His sister was renting a room to a young man who worked for the architect Richard Neutra. Shulman accompanied the young man to a home where Neutra was working and took some photos, which the young man showed the architect.
Neutra, an Austrian Jew with a thick accent, asked to meet Shulman, whom he then asked what he'd been doing professionally. "I told him I'd been in university for seven years. I had been doing nothing. I had no profession." Neutra asked him if he had been studying architecture or photography. Shulman said no, "I was not doing anything; I had no profession." Neutra was surprised. "But your photographs are beautiful," Neutra said. "Would you like to take some more photographs for me?"
As Shulman noted in his book "Vest Pocket photographs": "On Saturday, March 5, 1936, I became a photographer." His career path was set.
"It's a mitzvah," he told me.
On that same day, he was also introduced to another young architect, Rafael Soriano, who was working on his first house. Shulman would photograph the completed home, developing a friendship that would lead Soriano to design Shulman's own home -- which he lives in to this day.
As Shulman tells it, his timing couldn't have been better. He was beginning his career in photography just as a number of architects -- Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Gregory Ain, John Lautner, Pierre Koenig and Soriano -- were launching their careers.
All this was occurring at the same time that magazines, in particular Arts & Architecture, were looking for editorial material, as well as advertisers. Shulman became the go-to guy for photographs of California Modernist architecture.
"I was in the middle of it."