For decades, the California Dream meant the chance to own a stucco home on a sliver of paradise. The point was the yard with the palm trees, not the contour of the walls. Julius Shulman helped change all that. In May 1960, the Brooklyn-born photographer headed to architect Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House, a glass-enclosed Hollywood Hills home with a breathtaking view of Los Angeles—one of 36 Case Study Houses that were part of an architectural experiment extolling the virtues of modernist theory and industrial materials. Shulman photographed most of the houses in the project, helping demystify modernism by highlighting its graceful simplicity and humanizing its angular edges. But none of his other pictures was more influential than the one he took of Case Study House No. 22. To show the essence of this air-breaking cantilevered building, Shulman set two glamorous women in cocktail dresses inside the house, where they appear to be floating above a mythic, twinkling city. The photo, which he called “one of my masterpieces,” is the most successful real estate image ever taken. It perfected the art of aspirational staging, turning a house into the embodiment of the Good Life, of stardusted Hollywood, of California as the Promised Land. And, thanks to Shulman, that dream now includes a glass box in the sky.
TIME 100 Photos
Explore more iconic images that changed the world.Visit the TIME Shop to purchase prints, posters and more.Visit the Shop
Mr. Shulman photographed buildings by some of the era’s best-known architects, including Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, Mies van der Rohe and Oscar Niemeyer. But he also photographed less exalted examples of American buildings, like gas stations, apartment buildings and shopping malls.
Although his best-known work was made from the late 1940s through the 1960s, he continued to photograph into his 90s. In recent years a new appreciation of postwar architecture and design has contributed to renewed interest in Mr. Shulman’s work. In 2005 the Getty Research Institute acquired his archive of more than a quarter-million prints, negatives and transparencies.
Mr. Shulman’s reputation rests in large part on his photographs of what are known as the Case Study Houses. Begun by Arts & Architecture magazine in 1945, the Case Study House Program enlisted eight architects, including Neutra, Eero Saarinen and the Eameses, to design prototypes for homes that would meet the needs of America’s postwar housing boom. Robert Elwall, a historian of architecture photography, said 26 Case Study Houses were eventually built in Southern California, and Mr. Shulman photographed 18 of them.
One of Mr. Shulman’s most widely reproduced images, a 1960 view of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, shows two well-dressed women in seemingly casual conversation in a living room that appears to float precariously above the Los Angeles basin. The vertiginous point of view contrasts sharply with the relaxed atmosphere of the house’s interior, testifying to the ability of the Modernist architect to transcend the limits of the natural world.
Mr. Shulman’s other masterpiece, a 1947 picture of Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., pits domesticity against nature in similar fashion. The image shows the architect’s mostly glass house as a Cubist array of shimmering squares and rectangles, bracketed in the foreground by two glowing chaise lounges and in the background by the desert and an expanse of forbidding mountains. To the left, a woman is seen reclining beside the house’s swimming pool, apparently oblivious to what seems to be imminent nightfall.
The photograph was in fact taken at dusk, but to balance the light Mr. Shulman exposed the house, pool and surrounding landscape separately. In all, the exposure took 45 minutes.
Julius Shulman was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 10, 1910, and grew up on a small farm in Connecticut before moving to Los Angeles while still a boy. He traced his interest in photography to a class he took on the subject as a high school student in Los Angeles. After graduation he briefly attended the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley, and earned pocket money by selling his photographs to fellow students.
In 1936 he returned to Los Angeles, where he was enlisted by a friend to take photographs of a new, Neutra-designed house in Hollywood with his amateur Kodak Vest Pocket camera. When Neutra saw the pictures, he asked to meet the photographer and proceeded to give him his first assignments.
One was to photograph a house by Raphael Soriano, who would later be the architect of Mr. Shulman’s house and studio in Los Angeles. Soon Mr. Shulman, a largely self-taught architecture photographer, graduated from his amateur snapshot camera to a professional-view camera.
He opened a studio in Los Angeles in 1950, by that time drawing much of his work from magazines based in New York. He remained in business full time until the late 1980s, when architectural tastes had shifted to postmodernism, a style that rebelled against Modernism’s reductive forms to include decorative ornament and an often willful pastiche of historical references. Mr. Shulman regarded postmodernism with disdain, arguing that its practitioners were interested only in facades, not living spaces.
His self-proclaimed retirement did not prevent him from continuing to work, however. In 2001 he joined forces with a younger photographer, Juergen Nogai; they collaborated on the 2005 book “Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea” (Harry N. Abrams). In 2006, Nazraeli Press published “Vest Pocket Pictures,” a collection of Mr. Shulman’s early amateur photographs.
Other books featuring Mr. Shulman’s photographs include “Julius Shulman: Architecture and Its Photography” (Taschen); “Photographing Architecture and Interiors” (Balcony Press); “L.A. Lost and Found: An Architectural History of Los Angeles” (Hennessey and Ingalls); and “Modernism Rediscovered” (Taschen).
Mr. Shulman’s first marriage, in 1937, to Emma Romm, ended with her death in 1973. They had a daughter, Ms. McKee, Mr. Shulman’s only child. In 1976 he married Olga Heller; she died in 1999. Besides Ms. McKee, he is survived by a grandson.
Mr. Shulman believed his photographic mission was to capture the essence of his architectural subjects. But he was not averse to helping them present themselves in a better light. In an interview conducted for the Archives of American Art, he recalled an assignment for Good Housekeeping magazine to photograph a freshly constructed tract house. Since the house had no landscaping, Mr. Shulman improvised.
“I went to a nursery and rented some canned plants — five-gallon cans of roses and geraniums, whatever they had in bloom — and set them up in front of the house and framed the pictures with these plants. Then we broke off a branch from a walnut tree that was growing nearby and fastened it to a light stand so we could frame the picture with an arching branch, and in the finished picture the house is perfectly landscaped.”Continue reading the main story