October 20, 2006
by Canadian Architect
The Department of Architecture and Design of the Art Institute of Chicago is hosting an exhibition of more than 70 works by the photographer Julius Shulman, known as one of the most important chroniclers of American modernist architecture. His iconic images of Southern California in the 1940s and 1950sfrom the sleek lines of Richard Neutra’s Los Angeles and Palm Springs residences to the streamlined profiles of gas stations and movie theatresare only one part of this wide exhibition. Culled from the Shulman archives recently given to the Getty Research Institute and first shown at the Getty late in 2005, the photographs in Julius Shulman: Modernity and the Metropolis encompass Shulman’s career, from his early works in the 1930s up through the 1990s. The exhibition will be on view in Gallery 24 of the Art Institute until December 3, 2006.
The exhibition is divided into four sections. “Framing the California Lifestyle” and “Promoting the Power of Modern Architecture” display works that capture the evolution of modern architecture. Included are photographs commissioned by visionaries such as Richard Neutra, Rudolph Shindler, and John Lautner, as well as selections from Shulman’s extensive portfolio of 18 of the 26 California Case Study Houses for John Entenza’s Arts & Architecture magazine, a project inwhich architects were challenged to design single-family homes. “Development of a Metropolis” features Shulman’s photographs of 20th-century Los Angeles, including lesser-known images of gas stations, movie palaces, and bustling markets; here the highly aesthetic and yet also documentary images reveal Los Angeles as a city searching for its character. “The Tools of an Innovator,” the final section of the exhibition, presents a self-portrait of Shulman through his presentations of the tools of his tradethe photographic equipment that shaped his career.
Born in Brooklyn in 1910, Shulman moved with his family from the city to a small farm in Connecticut. It was the result of this early childhood spent on a working farm that instilled in Shulman his lifelong love of nature and the outdoors. Shulman’s parents moved the family to east Los Angeles when Julius was ten years old, settling in one of the first Jewish communities in Southern California. It was there, during high school, that Shulman received the only formal training he would ever have in photography, courtesy of a class he took in high school. His mother encouraged him to find his own path in life, and he used this freedom to study for years at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California at Berkeley.
During his time in Berkeley, Shulman found his hobby of photography well received, with friends buying his images and encouraging him to sell them in local and campus bookstores. The realization that he could make a living as a photographer began to emerge, and he returned to Los Angeles in 1936 committed to developing his craft. His big break came when a friend, a draftsman who was renting a room from Shulman’s sister, invited Shulman to visit his latest project, Richard Neutra’s Kun House in Los Angeles. Shulman gladly accompanied him and documented the building with a small Kodak camera. Shulman’s friend passed the images on to Neutra, who was so impressed with the budding photographer’s work that he not only hired him to shoot all of his projects but also introduced Shulman to other important Southern California architects, many of whom later became Shulman’s clients.
Shulman worked meticulously on his staging procedures. Saying once that “the photographer is the director and producer of each frame,” Shulman plotted every detail of his images, even when it involved moving furniture around a house, building a makeshift garden, or setting people as “props” in his rooms. The results were what we now think of as the “California lifestyle”: streamlined interiors, free passage between inside and outdoors, beautiful handling of light, attractive people sitting poolside with drinks in their hands. Shulman helped to create an aesthetic of glamour and sophistication not only for Los Angeles but for the modernist architectural style as well, particularly in an era in which Americans were suspicious of European-inflected design styles. Shulman’s work was in large part responsible for the softening toward and general acceptance of the sleek interiorsand seemingly unforgiving surfaces characteristic of the work of Mies van der Rohe, Rudolph Schindler, and Albert Frey.
Shulman worked steadily and tirelessly through six decades of architecture and design, initially in California and then worldwide, and always attempted to develop his skills. He taught the practice of architectural photography widely, and he authored two books, Photography of Architecture and Photography of Architecture and Design, intended to further make his principles and methods accessible to other photographers. He also made images of his own photographic equipment, some of which are included in this exhibition.
He was named an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and received its gold medal for architectural photography. Though he is officially retired, he continues to take photographs professionally, lecture, and consult.
Julius Shulman: Modernity and the Metropolis was organized by the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, on the dual occasion of Shulman’s 95th birthday and his gift of his archives to the Institute. It is one of the largest exhibitions to be devoted to Shulman’s prolific, rich career.