Friday, August 07, 2009

Julius Shulman

In all the hubbub of the past few weeks, I completely neglected acknowledging the passing of Julius Shulman, certainly the most important architectural photographer of the 20th century. If you are at all interested in mid-century design, it’s no doubt as a result of seeing Shulman’s iconic images of the period. He was 98 years old when he died on July 15.

One of the most magical times Tim and I ever spent was the day we met Julius. It was May 2003 and we were on an architectural bus tour of pre- and post-war homes designed and built by Raphael Soriano. Soriano’s first solo creation was the Lipetz Residence, located above Silver Lake, one of the city’s trendiest suburbs. The home’s round music room was made famous by Shulman, who captured so beautifully its 180-degree view of the lake and nearby hills. Shulman and Soriano became such good friends afterwards that the photographer asked him to design his own house in the Santa Monica mountains in 1950.

On the bus ride over to Silver Lake, we kept hearing folks chatting and laughing about someone named Julius and “just wait till he sees the house now!” We had no idea who they were talking about.

As soon as we exited the bus, we began exploring the grounds. Though the house was very “lived-in” and worn, the view remained timeless. Tim and I were marveling at our surroundings when an elderly gentleman, walking with a cane and carrying a camera, casually joined our conversation. He was friendly, talkative and acted like he’d always known us. We were concerned for his safety and so accompanied him as he entered the house.

Once inside, he really came to life, regaling us with how he took the famous picture of the 180-degree view of the music room and how the house, in its current state, looked so different. Unbeknown to us, we had been chatting with “The Great Shulman,” as Tim so affectionately calls him now.

The rest of the tour quickly became a blur; but at the end, word spread that everyone was meeting at Julius’s house. We got the address and jumped into our car. (Luckily I always travel with Thomas Bros.!) We drove up Mulholland and then angled to the left. We parked and climbed a very steep driveway to the house. I was dying to use the restroom, so went inside while everyone else milled around the backyard. As I entered the front door, I gasped. There, lining a long hallway, were 36”x36” prints of some of Shulman’s most notable photos, including the most famous of all: the 1960 picture of Case Study House #22! It was like walking into one’s own private museum of mid-20th century masterpieces. If I didn’t have to go to the bathroom so bad, I would have fainted on the spot.

After using the restroom—which, by the way, had a glass wall completely overlooking the San Fernando Valley—I roamed around the house and checked out all the original 1950s fixtures. The place was oddly deserted.

“Where is everyone?” I asked myself, starting to worry when I couldn’t find Tim.

Then I noticed a young couple heading toward the garage. Could everyone be in there?

Sure enough, there was Julius holding court in his crowded studio. People were crammed into every nook and cranny. Tim was quite literally sitting at the great man’s feet, while I tentatively leaned against a door frame.

Julius talked about his friendship with Soriano and how they worked together to design the house. He then showed us some of his photos stacked around the studio and described how he took each one. It was an amazing, amazing experience. None of us wanted to leave—ever! But then someone suggested we take a group photo and we all piled out to the backyard. Five minutes later, Julius appeared on the roof of the house with camera in hand, directing us all to squeeze in a little closer. We held our collective breath for fear he’d take a tumble, but he got the shot and, all too soon, we reluctantly started to leave.

“That was really incredible,” I said to Tim as we walked back down the hill in a daze.

"It really was," he replied, stunned.

We’ve met lots of famous people in our time, but none had ever quite touched us like this.

Thank you, Julius, for inviting us into your life, if only for a brief moment. We miss you, but will never forget you.


Ginny said...


Oleg K. said...

What an experience! Things like this don't just happen everyday.

A worthy blog post commemorating a photographer whose iconic images rest somewhere in every modern person's mind.