Julius Shulman

Photographer Julius Shulman, passes in Los Angeles, age 98

Julius Shulman, who died in Los Angeles last week at 98,  lived most of his life in the shadow of the Hollywood Hills, so its fitting that his career was a three-act drama – his struggle to see modernist architecture recognized through his luminous photography, followed by the decline of public taste for modernism (and many great buildings subsequent demolition). Act 3 was the revival of modernism’s and Shulman’s reputations, in an urban landscape ravaged by development and commercial blights.
Development greed, which turned Shulman into a committed environmentalist decades ago, is a threat that has outlived post-modernism.

Shulman himself was a crucial agent of memory. His journey is tracked in Eric Becker’s documentary Visual Acoustics. Besides proving the beauty and importance of modernism in southern California, the documentary shows how modernism became appreciated through Shulman’s pictures. Remember the adage that it’s not enough to be doing good, you need to be seen doing it?  The few surviving modernist architects who appeared in the film were as old as Shulman, and far less robust. As they fade away, the preservation of architecture legacy is more necessary than ever.

Shulman felt such a sense of defeat from builders opting to erect one po-mo monstrosity after another that he gave up taking pictures. In the documentary, he hadn’t mellowed, urging the younger generations to go at bad buildings with dynamite.

Shulmans pictures also dramatized how the landscape completed architecture works. As Visual Acoustics tracks LAs emergence as a center for bold design – and not just for the rich, since many of John Lautners houses were built on cheap lots developers scorned as “unbuildable” – it also surveys the air pollution that reached apogee in the 1970s, as the skyline darkened and, adding injury,  postmodernism came in.

Shulmans own house in the Hollywood Hills reflects his preference for the environment of once-luxuriant Los Angeles, as endangered in new building as the principles of mid-century modernism.  The lush grounds around his house swarm with plants. This is my church, he says to the camera.  Let’s hope someone preserves it.

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