Remembering Julius Shulman

The Photographer at the Kaufmann House

One of America's most accomplished photographers died last month at the age of 98. Eric Wills, associate editor of Preservation, remembers meeting Julius Shulman, the artist responsible for many iconic images of the nation's Modernist masterpieces.

"When I photographed this house, I was romantic in my feeling. 'My God, that's beautiful,' I thought." That's how Julius Shulman, the celebrated photographer of California Modernism, remembered capturing the image that defined his career: the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., aglow against the backdrop of the San Jacinto Mountains, Mrs. Kaufmann backlit dramatically at the edge of the pool.

We met in February 2007. Shulman, in town to promote a new book of photography, was staying at the house designed by Richard Neutra in 1946 for the Kaufmanns—the Fallingwater Kaufmanns. I had come to interview him about how the current owners, Elizabeth and Brent Harris, who had purchased the house nearly a decade earlier and embarked on a stunning restoration, planned to auction it off at Christie's.

I remembered our meeting after hearing that Shulman had passed away July 15 at the age of 98. Unlike many artists who don't live long enough for critics to recognize their brilliance, Shulman enjoyed no shortage of glowing tributes in the twilight of his career. Indeed, he brilliantly documented the rise of Modernist architecture in California and beyond, capturing how such renowned architects as Oscar Niemeyer, Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen (to name a few of his clients not named Neutra) elevated function into an art form.

Perhaps more important, he made Modernism appear inviting and accessible, photographing houses with their owners, capturing people as they lived, using their homes as the architects intended. And he also highlighted the often dynamic interplay between exterior and interior, the way a steel-and-glass house could incorporate the natural world and yet stand apart from it. 

The man had a knack for making an average house appear spectacular, sometimes leading to something of a letdown when seeing the actual design. His life's work was, in essence, an advertisement for California cool, a testament to an era when it seemed like a disproportionate percentage of the swingiest, hippest people lived within hailing distance of the dazzling lights of Hollywood.

Widespread appreciation for Shulman's career emerged when Modernism, decidedly dated for decades, once again became hip in the 1990s. Shulman delighted in the attention, because individuals restoring modernist houses (often baby boomers attempting to recapture the architecture and designs of their youth) needed his help. His collection of photographs represented an authoritative record of what many buildings looked like before they were altered beyond recognition in the 1970s and '80s, when tastes changed and postmodernism became the rage.

Indeed, 100 or so of Shulman's prints proved instrumental in the restoration of the Kaufmann House, helping the Harrises identify, for example, the grain of wood Neutra had chosen for the redwood deck, the birch cabinets, the Douglas fir ceiling.

The afternoon I met Shulman, he wore his trademark suspenders and blue pants as he sat on a pool chair next to the Kaufmann House, and he spoke passionately about how the Harrises had saved the structure. "It's alive now," he said. "With the Kaufmanns, it wasn't well furnished; didn't give the feeling of being occupied." A new owner, he worried, might not have the same preservation ethic: "You have to respect the spirit of the place. The house is a visual institution. It represents the poetry that Neutra wrote."

Shulman, 97 at the time, had slowed physically but was "entering into a cycle of more activity than ever before in my life," he told me. And as he unraveled story after story, it became clear that his legendary wit—he had taped a Mercedes Benz sticker to the front of his walker—remained intact. He remembered how he had gotten his start by snapping a few photos of a Neutra-designed house in Hollywood with his vest-pocket camera. How Neutra had liked the images so much, he had hired him to photograph more of his buildings, launching a career in which Shulman took hundreds of thousands of photographs, including portraits of the Case Study Houses. 

And he remembered how years after he took his most famous photograph, of the Kaufmann House, he had asked Dione, Neutra's wife, why her husband had never praised the image. "Don't you see," he recalled Dione telling him, "if Richard tells you how great you are, he's afraid you'll charge him more money for his pictures."

Shulman's optimism—the same optimism rooted in the technological progress that inspired the architects whose work he featured—shone through during our conversation, especially when he reveled in how the pendulum had shifted away from postmodernism and back to Modernism, reflected by the number of people restoring Modernist houses in California. "The public," he decreed with typical conviction, "has learned more about architecture in the last decade than ever before."

Clearly Shulman will endure through his prolific output. And I feel confident that nothing would please him more than the knowledge that today's homeowners use his photographs as historic guides when they restore their own Modernist residences, helping to revive the architecture on which he built his career. In paying homage to his talent, we could do no more.

Read the magazine story about Palm Springs 

See some of Shulman's iconic images

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