October 10: Shooting Modernism

2016/10/10 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1910 Julius Shulman was born.

Once he picked up a camera, almost on a whim, Shulman (d. 2009) taught Americans how to look at Modernist architecture.  He fell into architectural photography by happenstance; his first client happened to be Richard Neutra.  This photo shoot in 1936 opened doors to other Modernist architects who recognized in Shulman a photographer who could communicate something about their buildings that no one else (including themselves) could.  Through the succeeding decades, Shulman’s images of Modernist buildings were published across the country, introducing Americans to works by Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner and Raphael Soriano among others.

In addition to some of its contents having become icons, his portfolio is central to the driving force behind the myth-making of Modernism: images that present an optimistic, alluring, clean and slick world perfected by the materials and methods of Modernism.  His pictures humanized the buildings; their compositions were oftentimes more engaging than the actual subjects.  He broke down the barriers of Modernism as a high style for urban and West Coast elites, to something aspirational for anyone who could exercise their modern outlook by buying a magazine.  Shulman did for Modernism in the mid-century what Palladian handbooks did for Renaissance villas in the eighteenth century: through clear and precise and occasionally seductive images, he prompted the desire while packaging the result in such a way that made the advertised lifestyle, and its vessel, appear ultimately achievable.

Shulman’s most famous picture is the one above: an apparently effortless shot of Case Study House #22 (by Pierre Koenig, Los Angeles).  The dramatic cantilever is certainly enticing, but certainly something of the picture’s fame rests in the fact that people were allowed in the house, for a change. For all its simplicity, it’s actually a very complicated shot, requiring a 7.5 minute exposure on the city grid below concluded with a flash image of the house.  Like many of his photos, the apparently casual composition was carefully planned: furniture arranged to suit the photographic composition (rather than the function of the room).  In other photos he held branches over the top of the frame to change the appearance of the natural landscape.  In short, the apparent ease is the result of shrewd calculation and not a little sleight-of-hand: somewhat like Modernist architecture itself.

Image: The Photo, taken May 9, 1960 (from this source)

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