View Master

By Michael Torosian

Azure, November/December 1999

“When I was in high school, I was on the track team,” Julius Shulman told me on the phone from his home in California. “I learned to conserve my energy. Now I’m eighty-eight, and I’m just getting my second wind.” With recent assignments for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, Shulman has had a prolific sixty-three-year  career as an architectural photographer. Celebrated and widely published, his work will be showcased in an upcoming exhibition at the Tatar/Alexander Photogallery in Toronto.

Shulman stumbled into architectural photography after an encounter with modernist architect Richard Neutra in 1936. He learned from the critiques of the architects he worked with and came to believe that his task was to “co-ordinate and discipline my thinking in order to honour the qualities of the building and convey the essence of the architect’s design”. He set himself the pragmatic objective of producing compositions so lucid that, “a person seeing my photographs could understand the floorplan.” But he also aspired to photographically “translate, transform, transfigure and transcend” a structure’s design.

Shulman met the challenge with the assurance of a master craftsman. His finest photographs combine analytical precision with a sensitivity to what he calls “visual acoustics”. They are images devoid of affectation yet imbued with style and invigorated by Shulman’s technical adroitness. One of his signature motifs, the use of diagonals, is displayed in the renowned photograph Case Study House #22, 1960. The diagonals animate the structure and lock their trajectory onto a vanishing point traced by the lights of the nocturnal cityscape of Los Angeles. His virtuoso mixing of natural and artificial light, or as he expressed it to me, “interior light which you create and exterior light which God creates,” seamlessly integrates structure and environment in his photograph Kaufmann House, 1947.

Though he has travelled extensively, the architecture of the American west, notably the Californian sub-species of the International Style, dominates his work. Buildings by Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, Charles Eames, Raphael S. Soriano, Pierre Koenig and Edward Killingsworth form the foundation of the photographer’s oeuvre.

Julius Shulman, who has proclaimed architects “heroes,” feels that his career has coincided with a “dynamic age”. Devotees of architecture who share these sentiments would do well to view Shulman’s chronicle of this era and decide if they also share his belief that “great architecture equals great photography.”

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