Viewing the photographs of Julius Shulman calls to mind the term Martin Buber coined for the early tales of the Chasidic movement: “legendary reality.”
Buber called these magical stories “legendary” because they depicted events beyond the laws of the physical world, but “reality” because they narrated “the reality of the experience of fervent souls.”
“Something happened to rouse the soul; it had such and such an effect,” Buber wrote. “By communicating the effect, tradition also reveals its cause.”
The new exhibit of Shulman’s work at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center, “Palm Springs Modern: Photographs by Julius Shulman,” shows the artist to be a man who used his camera to communicate effects and reveal causes.
Shulman, who died this past July at the age of 98, chronicled the wave of modern architecture that swept through the valleys of southern California in the middle decades of the 20th century, allowing the world to see on paper what they might never get to see in person.
The exhibit, which runs through Jan. 31, 2010, includes 100 original photographs by Shulman, as well as 20 original drawings of the houses and, in October, a screening of a documentary about Shulman.
Consider the contradictory task of a photographer of architecture: Shulman needed to accurately represent large three-dimensional spaces using a small two-dimensional medium. And so to accomplish this, he tinkered with reality to arrive at the truth.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his most recognizable image, “Case Study #22,” which is not on display in this exhibit. The photograph shows a cantilevered living room hanging over the lit up grid of nighttime Los Angeles. A pair of women chats inside.
The calm inside and the sweeping vista outside highlight the mood of the time, when architects believed good design could improve society. But the photograph is a technical creation. To get the contrast, Shulman first turned off the lights inside the house to let the camera soak up the cityscape; then he turned on the lights and double exposed the film.
“No photographer could go back to that Koenig house and reconstruct that photograph — no matter how hard he tried,” Shulman said in 1994. “It was a secret, wonderful moment in my life. It almost makes you feel religious — thank God, I’m an atheist!”
As that quote shows, the role of Judaism in Shulman’s work is debatable and contradictory.
Born in Brooklyn in 1910 to Russian-Jewish immigrants — observant Jews and Yiddish speakers who moved the family first to Connecticut farmland, and then, in 1920, to Boyle Heights, then the predominately Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Shulman fell into his unique job by accident, in 1936, when a friend invited him to tour the Kun Residence, a new home by Austrian architect Richard Neutra. Shulman, a photographer strictly by hobby, snapped some shots and sent them to Neutra, who was taken by how well the images captured the essence and intention of his building.
Until his partial retirement in 1986, Shulman was the go-to photographer for modern architects.
Many of those architects — Neutra, Rudolf Schindler and Gregory Ain — were also Jewish, something Shulman seemed to have considered, but dismissed to a point. “We as a people, whether it’s God blessing us or overseeing us or nurturing us, we are blessed,” Shulman told the Jewish Journal in 2002. “My religion is nature. I’m truly a pagan.”
His photography gave architects a way to show their southern California structures to the arts world on the East Coast, particularly in magazines like Arts & Architecture. Promotion of this type suited Shulman, who sought to reveal the soul of a building by highlighting not only its design, but also its surroundings and its inhabitants. (He became one of the first architectural photographers to place people in his pictures.)
When photographing a house where landscaping had not been completed, Shulman often shot through the leaves of a potted plant to give the impression of greenery.
His photograph of a house by Swiss architect Albert Frey is taken from such an angle that the glass living room seems to grow from a giant boulder.
The image is both fantastical and accurate: while the house obviously does not grow out of the rock, the rock is central to the modernist challenge of the boundaries between indoor and outdoor space.
Shulman used the swimming pools and glass walls so prevalent in modernist homes as mirrors showcasing ghostly reflections of the Palm Springs landscape surrounding the houses. By doing this, he replicated the feeling of sitting inside one of these homes, viewing this stunning landscape, even while photographing the buildings from outside.
His reverence for landscapes competes with his reverence for modern architecture.
In his 1947 photograph of Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann’s Neutra-designed winter home, the organic peaks of the mountain range at dusk rise over the straight lines of the house. They intersect in only one place: Shulman positions the camera so that the corner of the chimney just barely touches the glowing gray and silhouetted line of the peaks behind it.
(The other Pittsburgh connection in the exhibit is Shulman’s photograph of a house built for Pirates slugger Ralph Kiner. It shows a swank den with a television and cocktail bar.)
His 2007 photograph of the 1968 Elrod House shows the curved edge of the house, the pool behind it and then the broad mountain range on the horizon and the built up Palm Springs down below. Shulman is in the photograph, a small figure leaning against the concrete railing surrounding the deck. Note: He’s facing the mountains, not the house.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)