Masterful in front of an audience, this prodigious talent’s legacy will continue
to draw crowds
By Christopher James Alexander
-Curator of Architecture and Design
Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
Visitors to Julius Shulman Photography exhibitions tend to be a bit boisterous. They exclaim, sigh, and holler at their friends across the room. They point and excitedly lean into the framed images, inadvertently leaving smeared fingerprints and nose smudges on the protective glass. It’s not their fault. They can’t help themselves. Exploring Shulman’s captivating photos is an interactive experience.
For a curator like me, this lively gallery atmosphere is exhilarating. When the two Shulman exhibitions that Wim de Wit and I curated and organized with our Getty colleagues were on view, I enjoyed some of the most entertaining and enlightening anecdotes, while unabashedly eavesdropping on visitors in the gallery. People would linger in front of Shulman’s historic photographs and marvel at the inventive architecture, elegant fashions, sleek automobiles and bygone neighborhood vistas framed by his lens. Parents asked their young children how they thought it would feel to live in a transparent, steel and glass home or sleep perched atop the city in John Lautner’s futuristic Chemosphere. Groups of women reflected on blissful afternoons spent shopping at the Bullock’s Wilshire department store, in order to find the perfect dress for a special occasion. Couples happily reminisced about seeing Lawrence of Arabia at S. Charles Lee’s spectacular Academy Theater. Through his precise combination of intuitive timing, distinctive camera angles, and alluring, staged narratives, Shulman not only created some of the most famous photographs in architectural history; he developed compelling images that continue to viscerally connect with people on complex levels.
Shulman’s passion, innovative methods, and unwavering business acumen propelled a prodigious career. He was a self-proclaimed “merchandiser” and took great pride in employing every tool in his photographic arsenal, in order to present a structure in its most engaging light. Over seventy years, he steadily created one of the most comprehensive and meticulously organized visual chronologies of modern architecture.
Shulman’s iconic photographs of L.A.’s dazzling residences established the world’s vision of the glamorous Southern California lifestyle. In reality, however, the majority of this area’s residents found such radically redefined homes unappealing and relatively few of these progressive structures were ever built. While his international reputation expanded as a result of his images of modernist landmarks, his business grew by photographing all well-designed building styles, regardless of aesthetics, scale, or the occupants’ taste in furniture.
While delving into his massive, 70,000-print archive, I discovered a photograph of a tract home with an interior décor that would have made Shulman’s first and most critical client, Richard Neutra, break out into hives. Thinking I had unearthed an image that Shulman would have preferred to expunge from his venerated portfolio, I silently slid the print across the table during a Getty oral history, and braced myself for his reaction. Instead of cringing, he confidently declared that he loved this domestic design, thought the clunky and awkward ceiling chandelier was beautiful, and vividly recalled that the metal kitchen table chairs were exceedingly comfortable. He was an ardent, infallible, and unflappable businessman to the end.
Thanks to the caring, astute, and patient support of his daughter and business colleagues, Shulman enjoyed an inspiringly prolific final decade. Following Hollywood’s cues, he became a star who eagerly embraced and consciously amplified his growing mass appeal. He loved the bright lights and attention and was masterful in front of an audience. After the numerous exhibition-related events we presented, Shulman would walk offstage, give me a wink and a sly grin, and say, “We put on a good show, didn’t we.” He relished lecturing, cajoling, and entertaining the crowds, and like all gifted legends, left his adoring fans wishing for more.