Like everyone else, I see modern architecture–the whole modern world, or at least the West Coast of it–in glorious black and white, thanks to Julius Shulman. Just as Hugh Ferris’s smoky charcoal skyscraper renderings defined Gotham a generation earlier, Shulman’s has been the formative, definitive lens through which postwar Los Angeles has been seen and understood.
So even as I miss him in one human sense, I’m kind of relieved he’s finally gone. Now maybe a new perspective of modernism has a chance to take hold. Or maybe an old one, who knows? Just something, anything besides relentless Shulmanism.
Christopher Hawthorne has a couple of open-eyed remembrances of Shulman and his double-edged relationship to the city he documented so long and loved so much:
Shulman’s vision of modern, stylish domesticity was in many respects an airbrushed one. It’s hard to believe anybody actually ever lived the way the carefully posed models in his photographs seemed to, carrying a tray out onto a poolside terrace, or sitting in perfectly pressed suits and dresses on the edge of a Mies van der Rohe chaise longue, city lights twinkling in the distance.
But his images were impossible to resist as a kind of mythmaking, even for the most tough-minded observers of life in Los Angeles. To look for any length of time at a Shulman picture of a great modern L.A. house is to get a little drunk on the idea of paradise as an Edenic combination of spare architecture and lush landscape.
Hawthorne also wrote another, more personal reminiscence of Shulman:
He was known for a certain blunt irascibility by that point in his life – he was 94 when we met, for God’s sake – but I never saw that side of his personality. He was dogged in his view that life in Los Angeles, as he told me once, was “simply glorious,” and that put him at odds with the generation of photographers, architects and artists who followed him, many of whom were more interested in exploring a grittier, less elevated vision of what it meant to be here.
The one time I met Shulman was after a public event, where his cantankerous charisma was turned up to 11. It was impossible not to be rooting for him all the way that night, even though I kind of regretted it in the morning.
That phrase, though, about others who “were more interested in exploring the grittier, less elevated vision of what it meant to be here [i.e., in Los Angeles]” gets to me. Hawthorne saw Shulman as a promoter; I’d probably go with evangelist. But the point is, sometimes it’s not a matter of exploring what it means to be someplace, it’s a matter of just being there and seeing what’s around you. It’s like Shulman knew what he’d see before he ever got there.