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Jewish Journal

The photographer who defined urban L.A.

by Tom Teicholz

November 15, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Julius Shulman, the still much-in-demand architectural photographer, famous for his photos of Modernist homes, turned 97 a few weeks ago, and the partying has been pretty much nonstop -- which is the way Shulman likes it.

The Getty Research Institute, which houses Shulman's photographic archive of more than 260,000 negatives, prints and transparencies, organized "Shulman's Los Angeles," an exhibition of 150 of Shulman's photographs, spanning his 70-year-career, which is currently on view at downtown's Central Public Library through Jan. 20.

The show gives a great sense not only of how Los Angeles grew but of Shulman's role in its maturation, as Christopher James Alexander, Getty associate curator for architecture, said, "as Los Angeles' No. 1 fan." Organized into several narratives that document the development and expansion of Los Angeles, such as "Downtown and the Rise of Bunker Hill," "Century City: Downtown Moves West" and "Wilshire Boulevard: An Axis in Evolution," the exhibition also includes a section called, "Only in LA," of iconic buildings, ranging from the Watts Towers, to the Academy Theater, Grauman's Chinese Theatre and Johnny's Restaurant.

Shortly before the exhibition opened, I visited Shulman at his home atop Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills. We had made an appointment for 10 a.m., but my on-time arrival woke up Shulman.

"I had a late night," he said by way of excuse. Dressed in a royal-blue bathrobe, he led me to a seating area in his living room, where for the next two and a half hours, interrupted by the occasional phone call about arrangements for a party he was attending that night, Shulman regaled me with the story of his life -- thus far.

What was most evident throughout our conversation was Shulman's continued air of delight. Despite his age, his more than 70-year professional career, all the honors, accolades and all the times he has told his story to reporters, students, curators, academics and fans, Shulman appears gobsmacked by his good fortune, his success, even by his own talent. He continues to appreciate and be amazed by his photos, by his compositions, which express glamour and visceral beauty, while capturing an organic natural order to the buildings he photographs.

Shulman repeatedly emphasized how he had no ambition, no training. He also repeatedly expressed the pleasure he derives just from living where he lives, from his home built in 1947 by Case Study architect Raphael Soriano, his lush backyard and the views out his windows, from living in close connection to nature, much as he did as a small child.

Although famous for photographing residential architecture, Shulman says it is the nature surrounding the buildings that he appreciates, and it is the balance he establishes between his subjects and their surroundings that make his work so striking and memorable. And make no mistake about it, Shulman remembers it all.

Born in Brooklyn on Oct. 10, 1910 -- or, as he likes to say, "10-10-10" -- Shulman was the fourth of five children. He describes his parents, Max and Yetta, as "literally illiterate about their family backgrounds."

Nevertheless, he recalls from conversations with other family members that his mother on occasion claimed she had arrived in the United States at 13 -- though it was never clear from where (she may have had Hungarian roots). His father's family came from Russia, but given their German surname, Shulman theorizes that his father's families fled Germany to the Baltic states and traveled from there to Ukraine, before immigrating to the States.

Shulman's parents met in Brooklyn and lived, Shulman said, "in a religious Yiddishe neighborhood. They observed all the Jewish holidays." However, opportunities were limited for the Shulmans, and in 1913, Max Shulman decided to move his family to Central Village in eastern Connecticut to become a farmer.

"Why? No one knows," Shulman said.

They lived in what Shulman calls "a decrepit old farmhouse" set on a good piece of land, with no running water, no electricity or heat, save that from a wood stove and kerosene lamps.

Yet the years on the farm in Connecticut were, for Shulman, "a wonderful time of life." His older brother and two older sisters attended the local elementary school. He was the youngest at the time (another brother would be born three years later), and, as a result, stayed at home, free to wander around the farm and spend a great deal of time with his mother, with whom he was very close.

"She was a very understanding, wonderful woman," he said.

Shulman attributes many of his interests to his mother.

"We learned a great deal about life from my mother," he said.

Her ability to raise her children in impoverished circumstances, bake bread, milk the cows, skim the cream, run the household, all deeply impressed Shulman.

Wandering around the farm, which was bordered by a forest and had a pond on one end, also had a great influence on Shulman. There were deer, skunks and foxes (much like at his home today, he says). Occasionally, his father would have to rush out to chase a fox away from the chicken coops.

"It gave me a wonderful perspective on life in the natural environment." Shulman said. He recalls his father "on the horse plowing the grounds and planting corn and potatoes, [while] my mother took care of raising the chickens and milking the cows."

However, this paradise was eventually supplanted by another dream. Shulman's father would read aloud to the family from the letters he had received from a friend who had moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. The letters said: "Max, you have to come. The streets are paved with gold."

The Shulman family moved first to Norwich, Conn., north of New London, where they lived across the street from a synagogue Shulman's father attended regularly. The other families on the street were primarily Polish Catholics, and Shulman recalls the anti-Semitism of the children, who cursed at him in Polish and were, in Shulman's polite words, "antagonistic to us."

For the move to California, Shulman's father went first, found a home and then sent for his family. They traveled by train for five days to cross the country. In Los Angeles, the family moved into a house on Alpine Street, near Sunset Boulevard and Figueroa Street. Shulman's father opened a dry goods store on Temple Street called, New York Dry Goods.

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