The Art of the Moment

‘Architecture and its Photography’ by Julius Shulman. Taschen. 300 pages. $69 RRP.

There can be no dispute about Julius Shulman’s pre-eminence amongst the 20th century’s architectural photographers. If Ezra Stoller had the West Coast of North America firmly in his viewfinder, then Shulman was virtually his mirror image on the East Coast. Working for many of architecture’s superstars, Shulman has captured some of the century’s defining moments and his images are amongst the most recognizable in world architecture.

His most recent publication ‘Architecture and its Photography’, Taschen, reflects some of the 20th century’s turning points. This book reinforces how important photography is to the linkage between built work and architectural fame. For many people, photography is the front door to great architecture.

Consider the 225 or so images contained in this book and reflect that at an average exposure of one sixtieth of a second, this volume represents around three and a half seconds from a working lifetime of more than 60 years. But what fragments of time. How much preparation and patience were involved in each image? Only a photographer understands the split second of conception when the technical and creative moment merge.

Pierre Koenig’s glittering Case Case Study House # 22 (1960) and Neutra’s stellar Palm Springs Kaufmann House in Desert Springs (1947) are just two of the now iconic images which give him a reputation hardly less than that of the architects whose work he traces. These images reflect a relationship of trust no less than that between composer and performer. His interior of the Kramer House by Richard Neutra (1953), has a steel frame floor lamp with a plausible enough T-joint at its neck. Only detailed inspection reveals the junction of slender steel wire to be a telegraph pole brilliantly welded into the composition of the lamp’s neck.

By virtue of experience Shulman, aged 89, is well and truly living history having worked with luminaries such as Frank Lloyd-Wright, Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames. Beginning architectural photography in the 1930s, Schulman began a distinguished career with the then unsung architects such as Rudolph Schindler, Raphael Soriano and Gregory Ain. Shulman’s friendship with Neutra was an enduring one lasting through to the architect’s death in 1970 and providing a constant source of inspiration.

Despite Shulman’s piercing eye there are some surprising inclusions and disappointments such as his low contrast interior of Lloyd-Wright’s Guggenheim and a handful of colour prints including the Cunningham Residence and Tamayo Museum. These prints clearly fail to sustain the tonal range and crisp image quality. We need only to turn to the Albert Frey Residence or Bruce Goff’s extraterestial Bavinger House to see the clarity of desert light.

Reaching his zenith with Californian Modernism in the ‘50s, Shulman artfully composes a langurous lifestyle of ‘spontaneity’ as couples sip cocktails poolside or relax on cantilevered decks high above Los Angeles. These remain quintessential images for architects alert to the role of photography as a projection, not into the nebulous space of public relations, but as central to public consciousness.

The publication is given added value by Shulman’s quirky, sometimes indulgent, text which is rich in anecdote. His style is discursive and highly personalised. This is as much a book for architects as it is photographers. A reading of the images, perhaps even more than the text, reveals the poetic and technical virtuosity of an era now frozen on film. After scanning the book, many architects may well ask just how far they have really travelled and how little has changed.

This is not a definitive book on Shulman’s life and work. An earlier book, ‘A Constructed View’ by Rizzoli (1992) has superior production values with its duotone print process. Nevertheless this Taschen volume is a vital marker of architecture at its most pristine. Many of the projects featured have since been irrevocably altered and vandalised by ‘improvements’ or bulldozed. Shulman’s photography is frequently poignant and compelling. This volume records defining, aspirational moments . Still snow-skiing and photographing, the wirey, bird-like Shulman continues to breathe life into architecture.

That his creative spark is hardly diminished by age should be reason enough to investigate a sublime art.

Peter Hyatt is a Melbourne-based architectural photographer and writer.

ESSAYS

Journalism provides an entrée for many of my interviews and assignments.

I’ve interviewed some of the world’s most interesting and influential architects. I love meeting and working with this group. They are inevitably passionate and driven by strong ideas. There is an impetus about everything some people do and hopefully that carries through in my essays. The selected essays are mainly current. Some are simply favourites.