Julius Shulman, the great-grandfather of American architectural photography, has been at the top of his craft for so long that, when asked his earliest memory of photographing great architecture, he can’t decide: construction of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal in the 1930s — or wait! — what about when they filled Boulder Dam with water?
“See the engineer right here, floating in this boat?” Shulman points to a tiny figure below the brand-new dam, from one of his many books published by Taschen. “That thing was huge.”
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)His best-known shot might be his iconographic 1960 image of Case Study House No. 22 suspended over twinkling Los Angeles. He points to a popular poster featuring his photo of architect Pierre Koenig’s see-through jewel box decorated with sleek sofas and two hourglass blondes wearing full Donna Reed skirts.
“Aren’t they great?” he asks. “They were the girlfriends of the architect’s assistants. They were very excited.”
On the wall of his studio in vine-covered Laurel Canyon is a letter from Frank Lloyd Wright dated August 19, 1950. It begins: “Dear Mr. Shulman: When I let you in on Taliesin West, I did not realize you were a professional photographer. I thought you were some artistic youth wanting to try your luck. Your work, however, is more than creditable to an amateur and better than a professional.”
The Taschen series “Modernism Rediscovered” calls Shulman “the greatest photographer of modernist architecture,” a phrase he reads with a bemused shake of the head.
“You know, I was there with my camera when they built the San Bernardino Freeway,” he says, grinning at the absurdity of his time on Earth.
If his thousands of beautiful images merely marched backward for decades, that would be enough. But Shulman is not done. In 2006 he was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to officially document Philip Johnson’s revolutionary Glass House in Connecticut. And today, at 96, he is still working, still taking calls. As if on cue, the phone rings. It’s the lovely people at Getty Center, finalizing their visit to Shulman’s modernist home, where they will plumb his archives to add to their own treasure trove.
Right now, he’s just back from a gig in the Oakland Hills, where he made rich images of dark stairways in a fine 1912 structure called Maybeck House. This, even though he uses a walker now, and a polished cane for backup. He has dizzy moments — his knees want to buckle. He moves slowly, grabbing corners for support, working from his living room to his parklike property to his memento-jammed studio.
Julius Shulman doesn’t know he’s old. Maybe he isn’t. He shows off his shots of Maybeck House, describing his recent experience: “Look at this interior. Look at these wisteria blossoms outside. I was walking up to the second story, and I stopped and looked back down. The light was beautiful. So I ran and got my camera and strobe lights and this is what came out!”
In fact, he did not run down — it was his mind that raced ahead. Of Maybeck House, he says: “Think of it — 1912! That’s a good house for 1912, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is. And 1910, when serendipitous events produced Julius Shulman, gave us a good artist, a good man.