The Greatest American Architectural Photographer of the 20th Century

Julius Shulman is often considered the greatest American architectural photographer of the 20th century. His photography shaped the image of South Californian lifestyle of midcentury America. For 70 years, he created on of the most comprehensive visual archives of modern architecture, especially focusing on the development of the Los Angeles region. The designs of some of the world’s most noted architectures including Richard Neutra, Ray Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright came to life though his photographs. To this day, it is through Shulman’s photography that we witness the beauty of modern architecture and the allure of Californian living.

Neutra and Beyond

Born in 1910 in Brooklyn, Julius Shulman grew up in a small farm in Connecticut before his family moved to Los Angeles at the age of ten. While in Los Angeles, Shulman was introduced to Boy Scouts and often went hiking in Mount Wilson. This allowed him to organically study light and shadow, and be immersed in the outdoors. While in college between UCLA and Berkeley, he was offered to photograph the newly designed Kun House by Richard Neutra. Upon photographing, Shulman sent the six images to the draftsman who then showed them to Neutra. Impressed, Richard Neutra asked Shulman to photograph his other houses and went on to introduce him to other architectures.

The Case Study Houses

Julius Shulman’s photographs revealed the true essence of the architect’s vision. He did not merely document the structures, but interpreted them in his unique way which presented the casual residential elegance of the West Coast. The buildings became studies of light and shadow set against breathtaking vistas. One of the most significant series in Shulman’s portfolio is without a doubt his documentation of the Case Study Houses. The Case Study House Program was established under the patronage of the Arts & Architectue magazine in 1945 in an effort to produce model houses for efficient and affordable living during the housing boom generated after the Second World War. Southern California was used as the location for the prototypes and the program commissioned top architects of the day to design the houses. Julius Shulman was chosen to document the designs and throughout the course of the program he photographed the majority of the 36 houses. Shulman’s photography gave new meaning to the structures, elevating them to a status of international recognition in the realm of architecture and design. His way of composition rendered the structures as inviting places for modern living, reflecting a sense of optimism of modern living.

Julius Shulman, Case Study House #22, Pierre Koenig, Los Angeles, California, 1960, Silver gelatin photograph
Julius Shulman, Case Study House #22, Pierre Koenig, Los Angeles, California, 1960, Silver gelatin photograph

Case Study House #22

Case Study House #22, also known as the Stahl House was one of the designs Julius Shulman photographed which later become one of the most iconic of his images. Designed by architect Pierre Koenig in 1959, the Stahl House was the residential home of American football player C.H Buck Stahl located in the Hollywood Hills. The property was initially regarded as undevelopable due to its hillside location, but became an icon of modern Californian architecture. Regarded as one of the most interesting masterpieces of contemporary architecture, Pierre Koenig preferred merging unconventional materials for its time such as steel with a simple, ethereal, indoor-outdoor feel. Julius’s dramatic image, taking in a warm evening in the May of 1960, shows two young ladies dressed in white party dresses lounging and chatting. The lights of the city shimmer in the distant horizon matching the grid of the city, while the ladies sit above the distant bustle and chaos. Pierre Koenig further explains in the documentary titled Case Study Houses 1945-1966 saying;

“When you look out along the beam it carries your eye right along the city streets, and the (horizontal) decking disappears into the vanishing point and takes your eye out and the house becomes one with the city below.”

The Los Angeles Good Life

The image presents a fantasy and is a true embodiment of the Los Angeles good life. By situating two models in the scene, Shulman creates warmth, helping the viewer to imagine scale as well as how life would be like living in this very house. In an interview with Taina Rikala De Noriega for the Archives of American Art Shulman recalls the making of the photograph;

So we worked, and it got dark and the lights came on and I think somebody had brought sandwiches. We ate in the kitchen, coffee, and we had a nice pleasant time. My assistant and I were setting up lights and taking pictures all along. I was outside looking at the view. And suddenly I perceived a composition. Here are the elements. I set up the furniture and I called the girls. I said, ‘Girls. Come over sit down on those chairs, the sofa in the background there.’ And I planted them there, and I said, ‘You sit down and talk. I’m going outside and look at the view.’ And I called my assistant and I said, ‘Hey, let’s set some lights.’ Because we used flash in those days. We didn’t use floodlights. We set up lights, and I set up my camera and created this composition in which I assembled a statement. It was not an architectural quote-unquote “photograph.” It was a picture of a mood.”

Purity in Line and Design to Perfection

Shulman’s preference to shoot in black and white reduces the subject to its geometrical essence allowing the viewer to observe the reflections, shadows and forms. A Shulman signature, horizontal and vertical lines appear throughout the image to create depth and dimensional perspective. A mastery in composition, the photograph catches purity in line and design to perfection.

A Lifetime of Achievements

Julius Shulman retired from active architectural work in 1989, leaving behind an incredibly rich archive chronicling the development of modern living in Southern California. A large part of his archive resides at the Getty Museum in California. For the next twenty years he participated in major museum and gallery exhibitions around the world, and created numerous books by publishers such as Taschen and Nazraeli Press. Among his honors, Shulman is the only photographer to have been granted honorary lifetime membership in the American Institute of Architects. In 1998 he was given a lifetime achievement award by ICP. Julius passed away in 2009 in his home in Los Angeles.