It`s possible that in a span of one afternoon I have developed a greater than ever appreciation for Californian modernist architecture. And it was thanks to an article I came across during a couch potatoeing session presenting a collection of black and white photographs of California in the 50s and 60s. Being instantly drawn to the famous night time shot of the Stahl Residence taken by one of the most celebrated architecture photographers, Julius Schulman, I jumped down the rabbit hole and researched more of his oeuvre. I found out that this photograph is surprisingly a double exposure: seven minutes for the background, then a flash shot for the interior, the house lights having been replaced with flashbulbs.
Shulman was a Jewish farm boy who grew up to create some of the most well known photographic representations of California, cultural artifacts that helped idealize the region`s image in the postwar years. His career took off when in 1936 when, being an amateur photographer, he was invited by a friend to visit one of the residences designed by Richard Neutra. He took a few snapshots with a Kodak camera he had received as a present from his sister and sent copies to his friend in order to thank him for the opportunity. Neutra saw the pictures, was immensely impressed and offered him more commissions. In the next years, he got to photograph amazing architectural icons to be, designed by the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Eero Saarinen or Raphael Soriano.
There`s a good chance you have already been seduced by the elegance and perfectly balanced composition of his photographs without even knowing, since he was the genius who photographed 18 of the 26 houses of the widely popular Case Studies series, a residential experiment commissioned by the Arts& Architecture magazine, which aimed to introduce the much needed modern ideas of affordable and efficient housing to the public during the postwar years. What struck me the most while looking at his photographs was the way he manages to highlight the structural and functional elements of the buildings in relation with their surroundings and, more importantly, the feeling that you are part of that universe, as if you had been sucked in by a vortex. This may be the effect of two important elements he detailed in an interview for Dwell magazine: the use of light and what he calls “dynamic symmetry”.
“We relate to the position of the sun every minute of the day […]So when the sun moves around, we’re ready for our picture. I have to be as specific as a sports photographer—even a little faster,” he says, nodding at the image, in which light spills through a latticework overhang and patterns a façade. “This is early afternoon, when the sun is just hitting the west side of the building. If I’m not ready for that moment, I lose the day.” He does not, however, need to observe the light prior to photographing: “I was a Boy Scout—I know where the sun is every month of the year. And I never use a meter.” – Julius Shulman for Dwell
There is no doubt Mr Shulman is a master of lighting. A pertinent proof is his well known photograph depicting the Richard Neutra designed Kaufmann house, in Palm Springs, California. The photograph was made at dusk, in three sequential exposures. During the 45 minutes it took to shot this frame, the interior and exterior lights were illuminated for various periods of time and the dimming natural light was valued at its best. The result was a photograph that highlights the passing of time, encompassing a wide tonal range, from the brightest white to the deepest black, which generates a sense of drama that became the trademark of Shulman`s photography. The photograph`s value also stands in its capacity to be the embodiment of an idealized lifestyle. In fact, he was among the first photographers to introduce characters inside his architectural frames, in order to emphasize the strong connection between architecture and people and to help the public understand the appeal of these modernist buildings. The Kaufmann residence turned out to be the perfect background to epitomise the life of the rich and glitzy, being the setup for another famous photograph you most certainly are familiar with- Poolside Gossip by Slim Aaron, shot in the 1970.
Julius Shulman went out of business in the late 80s, with the advance of postmodernism, which didn`t appeal to him, arguing that its followers were only interested in facades, not in living spaces. But he kept busy giving lectures and publishing books.
There is a lot to say about the man who changed the face of architectural photography, played a crucial role in promoting some of the most important architects of the modernist era and made a whole world dream of living in sunny California. But his story is better told by himself and his fellow architects in the mind-boggling documentary narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, a must watch for any architecture or photography buff.