The Man Behind the Camera

Julius Shulman: Palm Springs honors the photographer’s 70-year history with the Coachella Valley.

Michael Stern. Arts & Entertainment

Julius Shulman’s first experience with the desert region came in 1926, when he was 16 years old. He and some teammates on his high school gymnastics team in Los Angeles camped and hiked in canyons around Palm Springs, soaking up the abundant natural resources. His sensitivity to nature, borne from a childhood spent on a farm in Connecticut, later informed his professional work documenting the desert’s architectural treasures.

Opening this month, Julius Shulman: Palm Springs honors the photographer’s 70-year history with the Coachella Valley.

His depiction of midcentury modern architecture in Southern California is the definitive narrative of this innovative, optimistic era; and through his enormously successful career, it is a story told the world over. Most people probably aren’t aware of the truly extraordinary man behind the camera. At the tender age of 97 (he was born 10/10/10), he lives his life at full throttle, with his door open wide to whatever experiences come his way. It’s a remarkable achievement for a remarkable person.

Shulman’s extensive seven-decade documentation of modern architecture in the desert region is comprehensive, yet several important structures in the area had escaped his lens. Toward the goal of ensuring that the Palm Springs exhibition and book of the same name were thorough, I arranged for the Palm Springs Art Museum to commission Shulman to photograph nine important buildings that were critical to telling the story of the Desert Modern style. They included John Lautner’s Bob Hope House and Arthur Elrod House; A. Quincy Jones’ Sunnylands, the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Estate; and Donald Wexler’s Dinah Shore House and Palm Springs [now International] Airport.

Shulman and his partner, Juergen Nogai, arrived for three days of a nine-building shoot — an exhaustive workload for a youthful photographer but, as it turns out, child’s play for the master. You would think that after the pre-dawn commute from Los Angeles and 12 hours of shooting, Shulman, then 96, might be ready to turn in. This would be a naïve assumption. As I was saying my goodbyes (and dreaming of a good night’s sleep to prepare for the next day’s marathon session), Shulman mentioned that he just needed time to change his clothes and then wanted to go out for the evening. On top of that, he wanted to trim the schedule to two days, so that he could get back to Los Angeles on Sunday and avoid Monday’s rush hour. Unfortunately, that was not an option, as one of the homeowners had house guests that trumped his plans: three Justices from the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The experience of watching Shulman work provided insight into his process that countless hours spent observing his photographs couldn’t hope to provide. The manner in which he dressed a scene revealed his desire for a very active image area in which there were no “dead spots” where the interest level of a viewer might drop off. Startling to see was Shulman’s process for determining shooting locations. Instead of “casing” the property before setting up a camera, he walked over to a spot, determined that it was “the” spot, and proceeded to photograph from that point. He would then slowly saunter over to the next spot, stop, and direct the setup of the camera at that location. His photographic dexterity was apparent repeatedly throughout the shooting days. Simply by looking through the viewfinder, I could see that the Shulman touch was still remarkably evident — and his ability to create iconic, classic photographs was very much alive. 

Several weeks after the Palm Springs shoot, I drove to Los Angeles to work with Shulman and spent the night as a guest at his Hollywood Hills home, a Raphael Soriano-designed modernist gem set on a leafy and idyllic two acres. I was engaged in reviewing his massive portfolio of 35mm slides, and he was engaged in the nonstop activity that is his daily life. Photographers from around the globe came to take pictures of him for a variety of international publications; interviewers, journalists, and architecture and photography aficionados came and went; the phone rang off the hook — Shulman taking each and every call, answering the phone with his uplifting and melodious “Julius Shulman.” Invariably, appointments would arise, and he would enter them into his 3-foot-wide calendar, which is akin to his bible — the blueprint for his jam-packed life. The calendar is literally blackened with activities booked many months in advance and is a source of amusement and shock to those who have the opportunity to see it. On top of that, he was working on numerous book projects and articles.

After an 8 p.m. dinner, I figured I’d finally have a chance to see Shulman kick back and even remotely act his age. Not a chance. He decided that he was inspired to do more work on an article he was writing, and he summoned his assistant to travel an hour back to his house to transcribe some ideas that he had for the text. This went on for several hours; again, his energy was astonishing. After his assistant left, he was eager to engage in a lengthy and complex philosophical discussion about the nature of architecture and time.

Shulman had a meeting scheduled for 8 a.m. the next morning with the authors of a book that he was working on about the relationship between architecture and food. The meeting began over breakfast, which he insisted on cooking. His “famous” morning oatmeal with blueberries and bananas was served up, and he wouldn’t even let me wash a dish. The meeting was complicated, as Shulman is indeed a complex soul. The working of his mind is an endless fascination to observe, as he just keeps going, going, and going. He picks apart every situation with unwavering detail and is ever ready to pounce on an idea to bring it to maximum fruition.

Shulman doesn’t believe in obstacles, and his life is clear evidence of that philosophy. He can often be found puttering around his rugged cliffside property, watering his garden, traversing the trails of his wooded back yard with his “Mercedes” (an all-purpose walker and storage unit that allows for his mobility at an extremely brisk clip). He is not one for idle time; and whenever I would catch a glance at him in his studio, he was either chatting on the phone, answering the massive pile of correspondence on his desk, thinking of ideas for what was next, talking to his daughter — always doing something, but never worrying. That he leaves for others, since a guiding principle for him is that things will always work out.

A typical workday at Shulman’s house includes an obligatory 2 p.m. lunch break. The lunch menu on all of my visits was identical, consisting exclusively of scotch and barbecued potato chips.  I asked Shulman if this was the key to his longevity, and he responded with his trademark, “Why not?” I think more than anything, his “why not” attitude is the key to his long-evity. Travel the world on a promotional book tour? Drive three hours each way for several appearances in one day? Teach a group of inner-city high school students about the joy of photography? Live your life as if you were 20 and enjoying every single second of it? Why not?

Shulman is a legend, and he’d be the first person to tell you that. He often prefaces statements, “If I were a modest man, I wouldn’t say this, but I’m not, so …” Luckily, his talent lives up to his legendary status, and his generosity with his gifts extends far beyond the photographic image. He is the absolute nexus on the topic of modern architecture in California, and his generosity in sharing this knowledge is unwavering. His memory for detail is astonishing, and he can recall in minute detail the events leading up to any given photograph, even those taken 70 years ago. He knew virtually everyone who participated in this golden age of American architecture, and his insight into this world is unparalleled.

Of the many avenues that I have explored in curating and authoring the Julius Shulman: Palm Springs museum exhibition and companion book, none have been as gratifying as getting to know Julius Shulman so well. Life can often be a process of softly closing doors to various parts of one’s existence as they achieve Shulman’s age; to his credit, he has blasted those doors wide open and welcomes new experiences with the glee of a child. There’s a lesson there for everyone.

Shadowing The Master
By Jay Jorgensen

When someone gives you an opportunity to observe a living legend at work, you take it. I had that chance when Julius Shulman came to photograph some of the Coachella Valley’s iconic modern homes for his exhibition, Julius Shulman: Palm Springs, opening this month at Palm Springs Art Museum.

The first house Shulman photographed on this trip was Albert Frey’s Burgess House. My nerves set in. Photographing a photographer? That’s like operating on a doctor — you’d better get it right.

The hallmark of Shulman’s work is his ability to find and exploit the most dramatic lines in a structure. When Shulman enters a property, he pinpoints the best angles very quickly. He also kisses homeowner Dorothy Meyerman on the hand when he meets her. I soon learn that he kisses every woman on the hand. This could be the secret to Shulman’s longevity: flirting.

These days, Shulman photographs in partnership with Juergen Nogai, a tall German who pulls me aside and explains that he is not Julius’ assistant, but rather his business partner and a fellow photographer. “A documentary that was made about Julius showed me carrying the camera and called me his assistant,” he tells me. “My friends in Germany, who know me as a photographer, called me and asked what had happened to me.” I note this. But, then again, I note anything that anyone tells me in a German accent.

Nogai spends most of the time behind the camera, bringing Shulman test Polaroids for approval. They often disagree, not usually on the angles, but on what should be cropped out and left in near the edges of the image — rocks and trees and what not. Together they are the photographic equivalent of The Bickersons. But each is dedicated to getting the best image possible, and a palm tree or sliver of mountain can make or break an image. I leave it to your imagination to determine who usually gets his way.

I am scheduled to be with Shulman and crew (which includes Michael Stern, the curator of the museum exhibition) for two days. Near the end of our second day, Shulman is photographing Palm Springs International Airport, and I have not yet nailed the candid portrait of him for which I am hoping. Shulman has not always been as close to the camera as I would like. Whenever he does move close to the camera, my shutter finger goes into a frenzy, causing him to stop and fuss at me as if to say, “You young guys and your digital cameras clicking and clicking away.” But I hope he understands that, like his palm trees and mountains, a gesture of a hand or a certain expression could make or break my photo of him.

Finally Shulman gives me what I need. He moves toward the camera and motions to Stern that his image is now perfect. He smiles and lifts his hands and makes an “OK” symbol with his fingers. The San Jacinto Mountains make a beautiful backdrop. I am able to move on and stop annoying Shulman with my clicking.

One of the most endearing things about Shulman is his pleasure at sharing himself with admirers of his work. I took the opportunity to ask him about his image of the Kaufmann House, arguably his most famous photograph. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., where the owners of that house had a well-known department store, Kaufmann’s. “That’s Mrs. Kaufmann in the photo, laying by the pool,” Shulman tells me. “Everyone always thinks it’s a statue.” I am ashamed to admit that I am one of those people.

“I used her to cover the light in the pool, because the photograph was shot on bulb,” he says, referring to the camera setting in which the shutter can stay open for a long period of time, in this case 45 minutes. With this piece of information, I now understand why the image has its dreamy effect and has become an icon of photographic art. But I am a little dumbstruck at the idea of poor Mrs. Kaufmann, the wife of a department store magnate, lying by the pool for 45 minutes in one position, her back and arms probably getting very tired. But then again, maybe she didn’t mind. Maybe she knew she was posing for something very special, though I doubt she could have known the importance the photo would take on. Or maybe she didn’t mind because Julius had just kissed her hand.

All photos, unless otherwise noted: © J. Paul Getty Trust.  Used with permission.  Julius Shulman Photography Archive Research Library at the Getty Research Institute.