Few can say they’ve reached such a level of fame in a career path they had no idea they’d embark on. With an enthusiastic “why not?”, Julius Shulman simply accepted a job. The unexpected offer and Shulman’s unique skillset would eventually earn him the reputation of being the best known architectural photographer of all time.
Julius Shulman’s Roots
Born in 1910 and growing up on a small farm in Connecticut, Shulman loved the outdoors. When his family moved to Los Angeles, his parents opened a clothing store. Shulman’s parents and siblings worked at the store, but he preferred the Boy Scouts. Often hiking up mount Wilson, Shulman spent evenings studying shadows and light. He attended college for 7 years between UCLA and Berkeley auditing classes, never majoring or graduating. Knowing he could do anything but unsure what to do, Shulman considered working in the parks department raking leaves just to be closer to nature.
Fated to be a Modern Photographer
Given the chance to photograph one of architect Richard Neutra’s houses with his hobby Kodak Vest Pocket camera, he took six shots. Shulman sent the photos to the draftsman as a thank you, and the draftsman shared them with Neutra. Impressed, the architect asked him to take photos of his other houses and introduced him to several other up-and-coming architects. Shulman’s career took off from there. He never turned down a job, because he never had to. Everyone was willing to wait for him.
Out Of Retirement For His Muse
In 1986, Shulman retired for lack of inspiration. The optimism of the Mid Century Modern style was his muse and he disliked the increasingly popular postmodern architecture. Retirement for Shulman still meant a full schedule with lectures, occasional assignments, and work on books. Introduced to Juergen Nogai in 2000, Shulman happily came out of retirement (at 90 years old!) to start the next chapter of his life. Owners were buying and restoring these Mid Century Modern homes again. Everyone wanted a Shulman photo of their home, but they were unaware he was working. The team took on several of those jobs. Nogai handled lights and the fine-tuning of the camera while Shulman found the perspective and composition.
Shulman Becomes The Subject
At 83 years old, Shulman was the first to sign the guest book at the premier exhibit “Julius Shulman: Vintage Photographs of Los Angeles Architecture.” Shulman’s optimism through his art spoke to a generation looking for a brighter future. “His images weren’t ironic; they weren’t cynical. Instead they portrayed an ideal, a lifestyle worth recapturing,” says Mary Melton, Los Angeles Magazine.
Shulman had a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars dedicated to him in 2006. Two years later, Shulman was the subject of a documentary called Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. The film explored his life and work. In addition, it discussed how Shulman’s images helped shape the careers of influential architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, and Richard Neutra.
After a full and happy life, Julius Shulman died at home in 2009. He was 98 years old.
Check out Pierre Koenig’s Modernist Vision to learn more about one of Julius Shulman’s subjects and his material-based architectural style.