November 15, 2007
The photographer who defined urban L.A.
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Although Shulman did not join his family business, it is clear that he had the family talent for marketing and sales. Shulman explained that he would make several trips a year to New York to meet with editors of magazines, such as House & Garden and House Beautiful, as well as all the architecture magazines, to gain assignments and make his work known.
"I was concerned with photographing architecture and expressing it, even beyond what the architects themselves saw in their work."
The current exhibition at the Central Library does much to explain Shulman's gift. A section of the show is called, "Staging and Selling the Modern Mystique." In it, we see the final famous image Shulman created, along with other shots that illuminate how Shulman arranged shrubbery or redirected his camera to find the most glamorous angle to best showcase a home. Elsewhere in the exhibition is a shot that Shulman used for a real estate brochure of a completed building, compared to a photo of the actual barren construction site that surrounds it.
Shulman is perhaps most famous for photographing the Case Study houses. The availability of land and variety of terrain Los Angeles has to offer served as a perfect showcase for the work of the Modernists, whose architecture emphasizes the interplay between inside and outside, celebrating the natural beauty of California and taking advantage of the great vistas of an emerging city.
Shulman's success in photographing these buildings came from casting them as outdoor sculptures, functional constructs, whose beauty was realized in organic relation to their setting. Whether his image of Koenig's Case Study House No. 22, a night shot in which the hillside house seems to dangle above the lights of Los Angeles, or Lautner's circular, elevated Chemosphere House, it is the setting that makes the architecture seem both natural and glamorous.
Although the Modernist homes of the time were few in actual number, they served to showcase a particular informal, forward-looking, purely California style of living, and developers sought to adapt the same glamour to their commercial developments. Shulman became the photographer of choice for all such projects.
In discussing Shulman's work, Getty curator Alexander is quick to point out that Shulman was -- and is still -- a commercial photographer, working for hire. He was employed by the builders of downtown, and when other developers built competing projects, he had no problem working for them.
He was equally at ease taking photos for the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission of buildings worth preserving, as for the developers who sought to (and in many cases did) tear them down.
In the 1980s, Shulman considered retiring from active commissions to focus on book collections of his work, but, as he put it, "I couldn't get away from the requests for my services." To this day, he is in demand for private and corporate commissions and speaks to students and organizations on frequent occasions.
In connection with the publication of "Modernism Rediscovered," whose release was timed for Shulman's latest birthday, Taschen is sending the photographer on an around-the-world publication tour.
At one point during our conversation, I asked Shulman about the range of his photography. He told me that during World War II, he was assigned to an Army medical hospital. Shulman said he was "able to make compositions out of the thoracic surgeries."
He also confessed that when he first began to work as a photographer, his friends asked him to take photos of their babies.
"I've got the portraits of babies like you've never seen in your life -- beautiful! I was good at it," he said.
He then added, "I was good at anything I did. Still am to this day." He didn't say this in an arrogant way, it was a no-brag, just-facts manner, embued with that touch of amazement that colors every comment he makes about his work, about his life.
Many of the articles I've read about Shulman focus on trying to divine how he comes to compose his photographs -- as if it is a mystery that needs solving, rather than a gift.
When we spoke, I asked Shulman if, living in Los Angeles, he was ever interested in shooting moving pictures, in making movies. "No," he said adamantly, not in the least, never. For Shulman, it is all about the composed image.
After our conversation, Shulman took me on a walk around his property. When he was looking for a home in the early 1940s, he remembered the area where the Boy Scout camp he attended had been and drove up Woodrow Wilson Drive to look around. He lives not far from that camp on two acres abutting land donated to a conservancy that will never be developed.
He talked about how his views are unobstructed, how quiet it is, about how the redwood trees that he planted as saplings have now grown to amazing heights, about how he lives in the natural paradise that he loves, that he has enjoyed since his childhood on his parents' farm and continued to appreciate as a Boy Scout camping not far from where he now lives.
Looking around, I confessed to Shulman, "This would make me crazy."
"I'm a city boy; I like to know that people are nearby," I told him. "The sound -- and certainly the sight -- of animals on my property would make me say, 'It's me or them.'"
"My brother was the same way," he said.
Shulman told me that his brother lived in a high rise on Wilshire and loved nothing more than going to sleep to the sound of traffic whizzing by on the boulevard below.
This then is the key. Shulman's work, his art, is all about the quiet of the composed picture. His compositions please because they present a sense of calm to the modern world. If you look at his photos, regardless of the subject, you would never call them "noisy," "busy" or "messy."