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Julius Shulman: the photographer who helped to define LA

Steve Dinneen
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Many architects have made their mark on a place, planting seeds of creation that go on to define a street or neighbourhood. A select few become synonymous with a certain style, or even an entire city. But not many shape the way people think about an entire state; Julius Shulman achieved just that without designing a single building.

The final season of Mad Men touched on the shifting perceptions of California in the 1950s and 60s. Back then, if you wanted to get ahead in the world, you lived in New York City or Chicago. California was for retirees, weekend golfers, film studio execs and organised criminals – or so people living in the big cities thought.

But that perception began to change in the late 1950s, when California’s economy boomed and money was ploughed into infrastructure, making it a viable – and, crucially, trendy – alternative to the east coast powerhouses. Shulman, a visionary photographer, would play a small but important part in that drastic change in perception.

Born in Brooklyn in 1919 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, he spent his early years on his father’s farm in Connecticut. The family moved to Los Angeles when he was still a child and, after spending seven years at Berkeley (leaving without a degree), he returned to LA with lots of ideas but no direction.

It took a chance meeting for him to find his calling in life: a friend invited him along to a viewing of a modernist apartment, to which he brought the Kodak Vest Pocket 127-format camera he’d received as a gift. He took a few snaps, claiming to know nothing about architecture, nor to have heard of the architect, Richard Neutra, who designed the building.

Upon seeing the pictures, Neutra, whose designs were decades ahead of their time, took Shulman under his wing, offering advice on lighting and composition that would help to shape his young protege into the most celebrated architectural photographer in the world. “I was ordained to be a photographer,” Shulman would later joke in Eric Bricker’s documentary about his life. “I was destined.”

Shulman was fascinated by wildlife and woodlands, and he brought this interest to his pictures of buildings. His shots often disregarded the traditional demand for tranquility and stillness, instead incorporating the beautiful, tanned people and lazy dynamism for which California is famous.

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Shulman didn’t just make buildings look presentable: he made an entire state look like a lifestyle choice, filled with people frolicking on the beach or relaxing around the pool. Even when there are no people in his pictures, there’s something organic about the way he captures light, as if it were a tangible presence creeping through the shot, often using high-contrast to bring the geometric lines ot the fore.

He made LA seem like a place from a Hollywood movie, somewhere otherworldly, made up of clean lines and blue skies; the perfect antidote to the muggy, rainy, dirty cities further east.

The architects for whom Shulman would go on to work – Neutra and his sometime partner (or bitter rival, depending on the day of the week), Rudolph Schindler, Gregory Ain, John Lautner, Harwell Harris, Raphael Soriano, JR Davidson – dreamed up apartments that still define California today.

These men (this was the 50s, so they were all men) not only designed striking buildings – they reimagined the very concept of the family home, experimenting with open-plan layouts and even, in the case of Schindler, building the odd multi-couple swingers-pad. This was an era of architecture unlike any before it, and Shulman was the man who showed it to the world.


Julius Shulman. Modernism Rediscovered, published by Taschen, is out now priced £99.99; taschen.com

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