Julius Shulman photographing Case Study House No. 22 by Pierre Koenig, 1960
I was lucky enough, a couple of years ago, to be asked by Taschen Books to write the introduction for Modernism Rediscovered, a three-book set of Julius Shulman’s architectural photography that represents the definitive visual record of mid-century modern work by such masters as Neutra, Soriano, Niemeyer and the Eameses. Shulman died recently at the age of 98, still at work almost to the end. Though he’d had a long and successful life, he seemed to me to be one of those people who deserved at least another busy decade.
As a photography critic and a fan of modern architecture I was very familiar with many of Shulman’s iconic images, but I had never met the man himself, so my editor at Taschen, Nina Wiener, asked me to fly down from San Francisco to spend some time at the photographer’s house in Laurel Canyon.
Nina picked me up at LAX and we drove first to a See’s Candy store, where she bought two-layer box of cream-filled chocolates. “Julius loves these things,” she explained. Then we stopped a few doors away at one of those cavernous Jewish deli restaurants found only in New York and Los Angeles. There the counterman built a couple of four-inch high pastrami sandwiches, one for me and one for Julius.
We wound our way up Laurel Canyon, through pungent groves of towering eucalyptus trees, finally pulling into the driveway of the handsome glass and wood house designed for Shulman in the fifties by Rafael Soriano. Nina led the way to the part of the house that served as Shulman’s studio and office. Even though the Getty bought a quarter of a million images from the photographer, there still seemed to be plenty of material piled up on every flat surface in the room.
On the verge of his 96th birthday, Shulman was physically somewhat frail, but his handshake was firm and his eyes had the intensity of someone a couple of generations younger. He seemed pleased to meet me; or perhaps his pleasure came with receiving a box of chocolates, which he immediately opened and began eating — this at about ten thirty in the morning. I made some lame joke about how eating candy at that hour could kill him.
One of the annoying inevitabilities of an interview with someone who has had a long career is that a writer has to ask a lot of questions the interviewee has heard, and answered, countless times before. But Julius never showed any impatience. He talked enthusiastically about the way he stumbled into his career photographing revolutionary residences when a friend showed some of his hobbyist pictures to Richard Neutra, who hired him to do more. He led me to the studio wall where he’d hung a framed letter from Frank Lloyd Wright, expressing surprise that Shulman had turned out to be quite good after all (or words to that effect) in a condescending tone that confirmed what I’d always suspected about Ayn Rand’s favorite architect. “He seemed surprised that a mere photographer could do good work,” he said.
Julius showed me some early snapshots, including one of himself as an athletic young man gracefully swan diving into a lake somewhere. Time tends to be cruel to all of us, but it was easy to see that young athlete in the energetic old master. Throughout our interview, the phone rang frequently. Though he had an assistant in the office, Shulman would answer it himself, and talk with editors calling about using certain photos, or about making new ones of the renovations of famous houses.
After a couple of hours we went into the kitchen for lunch. Julius attacked the imposing pastrami and rye with an appetite undiminished by his recent chocolate binge. I could barely finish mine, and half expected him to offer help if I hesitated too long over the last few bites.
Back in his office, the conversation continued, as did the phone interruptions. The sale of his archive to Getty in 2005, and a long career as the go-to image maker for top architects, had made Shulman financially comfortable (to say the least), and yet he seemed to delight in still doing business with magazines (even if only to tell photo editors to call Getty).
At about three o’clock, he abruptly asked me: “Do you like Scotch?”
“Well, sure,” I replied, a bit nonplussed. “What’s not to like?”
“Someone gave me a bottle of what’s supposed to be very good single malt,” he said, reaching around behind his desk to retrieve a bottle of Glen something-or-other. “Shall we try it?”
Without waiting for an answer, he twisted off the cork and poured us a couple of fruit juice glasses full of what turned out to be excellent Scotch. No ice, no water, no soda. I probably hadn’t had hard liquor before the official cocktail hour since college, so I drank warily. Julius, however, dove right in, relishing every sip, and went right on answering my questions without hesitation — full of chocolate, pastrami, Scotland’s best, and sharply etched memories of a life well spent.