Jewish Journal

The photographer who defined urban L.A.

by Tom Teicholz

Posted on Nov. 15, 2007 at 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.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."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.'"

Shulman chuckled.

"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." When you ask Shulman about the growth of Los Angeles as a city, he divines no pattern and presents no special insight.

"It just evolved," he answers. "It was organic," he says, much as he describes his career and his life.

Shulman's abiding affection for nature running in parallel with the modernization, industrialization, growth and change of the last century brings to mind another classic -- Chaplin's "Modern Times," in which the Tramp and the street urchin, literally enmeshed in city life, decide at movie's end to leave for the country. Nature, and its balance, have always been the antidote to a modern world that seems out of control.

As the 20th century evolved, with all its chaos and tragedy, as Los Angeles grew in all its sprawl, as the 21st century takes hold with much to fear and much to hope for, Shulman endures in his 97th year because of his ability to make time stop in his photographs, to appreciate what is before him, to bring an ordered calm to our turbulent times, to take from modernity and make it seem classic. And then, to move on to the next photo -- or the next party.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


View our privacy policy and terms of service.