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LA photographer Julius Shulman dies at 98

Case Study House #22, photographed in 1960
Case Study House #22, photographed in 1960
Julius Shulman

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Julius Shulman, probably Los Angeles' most famous photographer, died Wednesday night at the age of 98. He was most famous for his photos of Modernist architecture, but he photographed all kinds of buildings, and was know for his human approach - he wanted people in his shots. KPCC's John Rabe went to his 95th birthday celebration and filed this report.

John Rabe: Julius Shulman has been taking pictures of buildings for 70 years. His photos of the mid-Century masterpieces are icons – like his shot of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House 22, suspended over a glittering nighttime Los Angeles, the women in the glass-walled living room glowing in their gowns like Grace Kelly.

Julius Shulman: We’re involved in architecture from birth to death. You’re born in a hospital most likely designed by an architect. But then when you die: mortuary, designed by an architect. That’s the story of architecture.

Rabe: If you’ve ever taken a disappointing picture of your house, you know it’s not easy like snapping a shot of grandma or points of sunlight dancing on ocean waves. Besides legendarily meticulous preparation, Shulman has a few not-so-secret secrets. Henning Anderson of Los Angeles has the first.

Henning Anderson: The light. He understands light. He always carries with him a compass. He always understands where the sun will be, and he doesn’t do any wrong angles.

Rabe: When veteran L.A. freelance photographer Gary Leonard heard about the idea of carrying a compass with him... well, it was like a light bulb went on in his head.

Gary Leonard: I’m going out to get one, because he’s absolutely right. Thank you Julius for the tip. I’ve been shooting a long time and I still have stuff to learn.

Rabe: So, it’s light, and, according to Wim DeWitt, head of special collections and curator of architecture at the Getty Research Institute, people. Unlike many architecture photos, Shulman’s frequently include human beings.

Wim DeWitt: He wanted people to be in the picture to really show that the architecture has a soul, that it is a place where you can live in.

Rabe: ... or shop or work – people walk through his shots of car dealerships, an Anaheim Mobil station, and down the spiral stairs at Convair Astronautics in San Diego.

That makes light, people, and DeWitt adds, a lack of snootiness.

DeWitt: In his time, most architecture photographers would only work with the most important architecture journals. He would do photography that could also go to the popular press, the kind of photography that House Beautiful or House and Garden would like to see. And I think that was a business instinct.

[Crowd at Getty sings "Happy Birthday"]

Rabe: There’s something about photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson died at 95, Manuel Alvarez Bravo was 100, Leni Riefenstahl was 101. They all worked until they died. Maybe it’s the darkroom chemicals. Or more likely, as someone at Shulman’s 95th birthday party put it, it’s because their vocation is observing, and they never stop observing, and learning.

Shulman donated his large format work to the Getty. But that leaves thousands of 35-millimeter slides that’ll be used to teach photography to troubled high school kids.

Shulman: If you learn how to take photographs, you learn the power of photography, what you can do with a camera, it may help you, some students, many as possible, to learn that maybe they don’t have to drop out of high school, maybe they can learn something at school.

You don’t have to become a photographer, but if you do, photography offers so much potential for learning what’s going on in the world around you. Whether you photograph a flower, or a girl, or a drink, or a piece of cake, or architecture.

Extra: News release from Los Angeles Magazine

For Immediate Release
July 16, 2009, 12:30 p.m.

LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE Reports That Photographer Julius Shulman Dies

Los Angeles magazine is saddened to report that renowned photographer Julius Shulman died last night at the age of 98. His daughter, Judy McKee, says that her father was at his Laurel Canyon home at the time and died peacefully. “He led a charmed life right up to the end,” McKee told editor Mary Melton, who profiled Shulman in the January issue of Los Angeles. In the story, Melton said the photographer “gave Los Angeles its best self, and then exported its mythology to the world.” Read her profile—and see a slideshow of images from his 73-year career—at the magazine’s web site,