Shaping the Image of Southern Californian Lifestyle

Regarded as one of the most important architectural photographers of the 20th century, Julius Shulman’s images shaped the image of southern Californian lifestyle during the 1950s and 60s. His architectural studies gave the iconic status to the designs to the likes of Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Rudolf Shindler and Frank Lloyd Wright, some of the world’s greatest architects. Shulman’s fascination with the ethereal Californian landscape comes as no surprise as he himself spent much of his early life in the outdoors.

Working with Richard Neutra

Born in 1910, he grew up in a small farm in Connecticut. After his family moved to LA, Julius was introduced to Boy Scouts, where he often hiked Mount Wilson, which allowed him to study the light and shadow of the outdoors during different times of the day. In 1936, after attending college between UCLA and Berkeley, he was presented with the opportunity to photograph the newly designed Kun House by Richard Neutra. Julius sent the 6 shots he took to the draftsman, who showed them to Neutra. Highly impressed, Richard Neutra asked Shulman to photograph his other houses and also introduced him to other several up-and-coming Californian architects. His career took off from then on.

The Case Study Houses

Julius Shulman’s early success can be attributed to his dynamic, inviting photographs of the Case Study Houses. The Case Study House Program (1945-1966) was established by the Art & Architecture magazine in 1945.

in an effort to produce model homes for efficient and affordable living during the housing boom generated after the end of World War II.”

Julius Shulman, already well acquainted with the architects chosen to design the program’s thirty six homes, was selected to photograph and document the houses. These images were not solely visual records of an architectural project. Shulman’s photographic style elevated the structures to a status of global recognition and secured their places in the arena of architectural art history.

Julius Shulman, Bailey House, Case Study House No. 21, 1959-1962
Julius Shulman, Bailey House, Case Study House No. 21, 1959-1962

Presenting the Optimism of Mid-Century Modernism

Shulman’s interpretation of the structures allowed the homes to appear inviting and present the optimism of mid-century modernism. In an episode of Voice of the Photographer by the Annenberg Space for Photography, Shulman further elaborates on creating such inviting spaces saying;

“Whatever I do with my photography, my exercise is to be sure that my composition spells out how you can enjoy this kind of architecture.”

His compositions were often carefully staged as tableaus to convey the idyllic Californian lifestyle; sunny, suburban open spaces with natural light, featuring ample glass, pools, and patios, oozing a feeling of an airy, ethereal way of living.

The Idyllic Californian Lifestyle

A few of the homes that perfectly reflect Shulman’s photographic aesthetic include; The Bailey House (Case Study House No.21), The Frank Residence (Case Study House No.25, and House B (Case Study No.23). His black and white images promoted the cost effective use of structure and materials such as steel, wood, and glass while adding a sense of glamour with a timeless air.

Julius Shulman, The Frank Residence, Case Study House No. 25, 1959-1962
Julius Shulman, The Frank Residence, Case Study House No. 25, 1959-1962

Shulman’s choice of black and white imagery allowed him to reduce the subject to its geometrical essentials. The viewer is able to appreciate and observe the reflections created by the element of natural light, as can be seen in the case of the Frank Residence. His use of light illuminates certain surfaces and structures, and even emphasize the lack of light in some corners, creating a beautiful play and balance of light and shadow.

Becoming One with Nature

Shulman’s routine prior to the actual shooting of the houses was also his way of nodding to being one with nature – one of the main experiences the designs offer. Before the shoot, Shulman would visit the houses without a camera to study the changes of light on the structure throughout the day and spend time in and around the house to best mirror the feeling of what it would be like to live in that location in his photographs. Of this ritual, he said: 

“I just simply looked around.”

An act so simple and minimalistic in thought, yet so powerful and refined just like his photographs. On Shulman’s architectural photography, Mary Melton of Los Angeles Magazine said;

“His images weren’t ironic; they weren’t cynical. Instead they portrayed an ideal, a lifestyle worth recapturing.”

Julius Shulman, House B, Case Study House No. 23, 1959-1962
Julius Shulman, House B, Case Study House No. 23, 1959-1962

His images transferred the three dimensional perspectives of notable architects into the two dimensional photographs. His portrayal of an idealized vision of mid-century living went far beyond Los Angeles and  elevated architectural art history around the world.

Lifetime Acclaim

Julius Shulman retired from active architectural work in 1989. In this same year, his photographs of the Case Study Houses were shown at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, in a show titled; ‘Blue Prints for Modern Living.’ Shulman’s work continues to be a point of reference for numerous architects, institutions and artists. He was the only photographer to have been granted lifetime membership in the American Institute of Architects, and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Center of Photography in 1998.