Glimmers of Utopia

Photographer Julius Shulman's evocative vision of desert modernism

Julius Shulman: Palm Springs

Julius Shulman: Palm Springs

By Michael Stern and Alan Hess

Rizzoli (in association with the Palm Springs Art Museum) 

208 pp., $55


The couple in the photograph could be members of a Connecticut country club: She, blonde and athletic in a 1950s bathing suit, moves to dip her foot in a swimming pool, one hand beckoning her seated companion. He, overdressed in slacks and moccasins (with argyle socks!), watches her, smiling, a pipe in his mouth. But Connecticut rarely looked like this. The professorial man sits on a chair that is essentially a slab of concrete. A low wall of corrugated plastic—in squares of red, green, and gray—curves away from the pool area; behind it rises, spaceship-like, a circular metal turret with large porthole windows.

The eccentric house belonged to the Swiss-born architect Albert Frey, who built it for himself in Palm Springs, Calif., between 1941 and 1953. What's striking about this picture of it—taken by Julius Shulman in the mid-'50s—is not Frey's sci-fi brand of modernism so much as the organic and domestic details that Shulman uses to humanize Frey's vision, to render it reassuringly American and normal. Palm fronds reach far into the frame, and on the left margin, the tree's ungainly, spiny trunk counterpoints the horizontal line of Frey's roof. Even the concrete-slab lounger is made to look inviting with a very un-Corbusian accouterment—a hot-pink cushion.

Since the chance meeting with the architect Richard Neutra in 1936 that launched his career, Julius Shulman has been the preeminent photographer of California modernism, the sunny, relaxed version of the International Style that flourished in and around Los Angeles. The architects represented in  a collection of photographs of modern buildings in the resort town two hours east of L.A., all strove to adapt European modernism to a rugged desert setting. They wanted their buildings to reflect the laid-back optimism of the state of California, but more important, they hoped to dissolve, or confound, the boundary between house and nature.

Neutra, for example, ventured from his Los Angeles base to design three houses in Palm Springs after it became a fashionable resort in the late 1930s. More architects followed, lured at first by the desert scenery and wealthy clients with modish tastes, later on by the mix of commercial, civic, and residential projects in the growing town. Several came from the Midwest, including E. Stewart Williams, William Cody, Donald Wexler, and Hugh Kaptur. Some were already converts to the new architecture (Wexler had come west to meet Neutra, his hero), but most adopted it by degrees and were equally inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. The resulting Palm Springs style—there were houses for the rich (Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), office complexes, department stores, and banks—took advantage of the local climate (hot and dry year-round) to bring modernism down to earth.

Shulman, now 97 and still working, certainly had the advertiser's eye for the attractive, well-posed model, for the right prop. But his talent ran deeper than that. Captivated early on by the modernist commitment to clarity, order, and symbiosis with nature, he trained his lens on those (sometimes elusive) qualities in photo after photo, coaxing a glimmer of utopia out of the tilt of a roof or curve of a wall.

His compositional strategies were assured, his use of lighting masterly—all the more impressive considering the photo technology that was available in the 1940s and '50s. Shulman's best Palm Springs photo, of Neutra's Kaufmann Desert House (taken in 1947), owes its otherworldly glow to light balanced from three sources: the glass-walled house, the lighted pool, and the sun, setting behind the San Jacinto Mountains. The whole shoot took a mere 45 minutes, as Shulman recalled in a recent interview. If he had started any earlier or later, the twilight would have been wrong.

Shulman brilliantly captures the transparency, the seamlessness, of Palm Springs' modernist buildings, many of which perch on their sites like elaborate tents. Photos of the Samuel and Luella Maslon House (1962), designed by Neutra, tease the eye into seeing outside as inside, patio as living room. Among Shulman's photos of Frey's Raymond Loewy House (1947), a shot of the pool, dotted with boulders and reflecting a cloud-strewn sky, holds a surprise in the foreground: interior carpet. (The pool actually flows into the house.) In another carefully composed picture, of Cody's J.B. Shamel House (1962), the frame is bisected by a wedge-shaped wall, living area to the left and garden to the right; an unbroken patterned roof covers both areas, and an accent table with a vase seems to pull the garden toward us, back inside.

The essays by Michael Stern and Alan Hess on the architects who came to Palm Springs offer a window into the careers of the men, many unsung, who put a Californian twist on modern architecture and strove to realize its ideals in all sorts of building types. Some of the photo captions reveal the techniques Shulman used to produce his extraordinary photographic effects; I wish that more did.

Perhaps the most astonishing photographs in this book are of, not by, Julius Shulman. Small black-and-whites that accompany the foreword, they show him at 16, in 1926, goofing around in the then-pristine spot of what became Palm Springs, where he and his friends would camp out. To be able to witness such a long stretch of architectural history—what a gift for Shulman and for us.

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