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Modern Architectural Photography

Professional and amateur photographers will agree with a statement made by Julius Shulman (1910-1920), one of the leading photographers of the 20th Century. He said, “In a way, you can stop time.” In Shulman’s case, during his renowned career he is best known for some of the most iconic photographs in architectural history. Shulman’s photographs reveal the essence of an architect’s vision and capture the spirit of the era in which they were produced. This week at The Crocker in Sacramento there is a special screening of the documentary film, Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. Read on to learn more about this prominent photographer of the 20th century.

Kauffman House, Palm Springs - Architect Richard Neutra, 1946

Shulman’s big break came in 1936 when architect Richard Neutra had him document his architectural designs. This work opened up doors for Shulman to work closely with other modernist architects of the day.  His photographs of Southern California’s most progressive modern homes promoted the careers of not only Neutra, but also Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, and Pierre Koenig. Mid-20th century design comes alive through Shulman’s compositions of carefully posed models set against streamlined furnishings and breathtaking vistas. His work continues to illuminate Southern California living during the 1950s and 1960s.

Stahl House, Los Angeles - Architect Pierre Koenig, 1960

Anyone who appreciates photography, mid century modern architecture or nostalgic images of this era should explore further the career of Julius Shulman. His intuitive timing and distinctive camera angles produced bold portraits of hundreds of modern structures beyond Los Angeles. Through Shulman’s lens, buildings become unique studies of mass, shadow and light.  Julius Shulman was a professional. In addition to his astute knowledge of design principles, his archives of 260,000 prints, negatives, and color transparencies were impeccably organized and enabled him to fulfill the requests of generations of clients in architecture, construction, academia, publishing, and the media.

Stahl House, Los Angeles - Architect Pierre Koenig, 1960

In 1977, his book, The Photography of Architecture and Design: Photographing Buildings, Interiors, and the Visual Arts, was published; his legacy captured. In 2008, Eric Bricker, filmmaker and director, created a documentary film on Julius Shulman and Moderernism. A mentor and friend, Shulman was a tremendous influence on Bricker who felt it a privilege and honor to work on such a project with such depth and distinction. The documentary film called Visual Acoustics is both a testament to the evolution of modern architecture and a celebration of the life and career of Julius Shulman.

Stahl House in color, 1960


Mobil Gas, Anaheim - Architects Smith & Whitney, 1956

The above image by Shulman has a fantastic story. Shulman reported that his architect friends Whitney Smith and Wayne Williams were commissioned by Mobil Gas to do a mockup for a new type of design for the Mobil Gas image, including the flying horse. In the background of this photograph there is a story. “The architect’s wife was there, ” Shulman said.  “She was driving an Alfa Romeo convertible, with white gloves. I had her pull her car up just far enough that the bumper would not come inside that shadow line. And then her arms would show. She’s just coming in to get gas, to that station. It’s a story-telling picture.” In fact, it was her own car along with a customer’s red convertible. The moment the customer pulled in, Shulman ran over and asked, ‘Would you mind? I have a young lady with a car waiting for me, with a convertible.’ Shulman asked, ‘Would you stay in your car while I photograph it? I’ll have the attendant talking to you, ‘How many gallons do you want?’ ” Shulman staged this image in such a natural way.

Staircase, San Diego - Architects Pereira & Luckman, 1958

In collaboration with the Sacramento Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and SacMod – an organization dedicated to promoting, preserving and protecting modern art, architecture and design in the Sacramento region- a special screening of the documentary film Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman will be held at the Crocker Art Museum on Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 7:00 PM. The film’s Director, Eric Bricker, will be in attendance at this screening in Sacramento and will introduce the film, and lead a post-screening discussion. Tickets to the event are $6 for Crocker Art Museum members and $12 for non-members. Admission to the film includes admission to the museum, which will be open until 9:00pm. Food and drink will be available for purchase at the Crocker Cafe until 8:45 PM. Architectural aficianados and design mavens should NOT miss this event at The Crocker.

All photos from VISUAL ACOUSTICS, an Arthouse Films release 2008. Copyright J. Paul Getty Trust.

4 Responses to Modern Architectural Photography

  1. john hess April 4, 2011 at 11:12 am #

    I know, quibbling, but it looks like a Austin Healey convertible to me.

    Can you tell me how long the film is?

  2. Diana Mahoney April 5, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    HI John, The film is 84 minutes long….Regarding the convertible….Alpha Romeo came from a reported quote from Julius Shulman himself….Love that style! Thanks for reading Davis Life Magazine!

  3. Gretchen S April 10, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    Beautifully written article! Many thanks for helping spread the word about our event, which almost sold out. Director Eric Bricker was very impressed with the Sacramento area’s enthusiasm.

  4. Diana Mahoney April 10, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    Hi Gretchen, Thank you for your comments. I’m sure the event was amazing. I was sorry my schedule didn’t allow for me to attend. You’ll have to keep me posted with this year’s home tour dates. I know our DLM readers are anxious to know more details!