BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 12 NOV 00
Featured in
Issue 55

Julius Shulman

The Photographers Gallery, London, UK

BY Alex Farquharson in Reviews | 12 NOV 00

To state that Julius Shulman is one of the most important photographers of architecture ever is less grand than it sounds. One wouldn't normally expect more than technical proficiency from what is otherwise a sub-genre at the service of a 'proper' art form, but Shulman's importance ranks high above the particular line of work he devoted his long career to. Without a doubt his photographs are the single most influential factor in the popularisation of the Case Study prototypes for mass housing designed by (among others) Richard Neutra, Charles Eames, Pierre Koenig, and Edward Killingsworth, in Southern California in the 1950s and 60s. A kind of Max Clifford of Modernist housing, Shulman fully understood and interpreted the concerns of the master architects he was so close to - pure lines, open, functional space, cost effective use of structure and materials - while adding an Arcadian, dynamic, domestic sense of glamour that was all his own. While he documented the full range of Modernist structures in the American West - including, for example, the more expressionistic work of Albert Frey, Bruce Goff, John Lautner, and Eero Saarinen - it is his images of the 26 or so Case Study prototypes for which Shulman is mostly remembered, and which are the focus of this sampler show.

The colour shots, especially, have more of an atmosphere of a 1950s fashion plate, sitcom (think Bewitched) or television commercial, than of project documentation. Shulman arranged his good-looking actors and props as a director might on a studio set. A porcelain-faced housewife is bathed in golden technicolor in the middle distance as she prepares food by a chrome sink in an interior shot, Case Study No. 20 (Buff, Straub and Hensman) (1958); it's a distinctly American take on a Dutch still-life with a pumpkin and corn-on-the-cob occupying the foreground. A similarly contrived sense of joie de vivre is evident in a black and white image (not included in this show) from 1959 which depicts a girl strumming a Spanish guitar in dappled light under the perforated metal awning of Garret Eckbo's Aluminium Garden. Living is also easy for the perfect all-American couple spending a balmy Los Angeles evening in the stark, open-plan I-beam interior of Pierre Koenig's No. 21 (1958). The auburn-haired wife in evening dress, lounges on a Knoll-style black leather sofa, while her husband, in a dark suit, attends to the music at a commodious gramophone, the right-hand headlight of his recently parked car just visible from the carport at the image's vanishing point. What the post-War American public might otherwise have thought of as austere, industrial, de-humanised architecture, takes on a sleek, relaxed, aspirational glow thanks to these little pieces of theatre.

If it weren't for Shulman, the whole Wallpaper* revival of the Californian Case Study aesthetic would be even more improbable than the relative acceptance of the architecture first time round. When the photographs were taken, the actors, costumes and props were as up-to-date as the architecture. Now, of course, these uncomplicated, bourgeois, gender-specific lifestyles have dated, while the buildings are preserved against the ravages of re-modelling, demolition and decay in their fresh brilliance, resulting in a campy chic and an anachronistic sense of period.

This exhibition showed that Shulman was at least as resourceful in black and white as in colour. These photographs, many of which were taken at night, have a more stately, though slightly moody, timeless air. Whereas the colour images are saturated with sub-tropical sunlight, the black and whites have a ghostly sense of chiaroscuro, which causes curtain walls to glow like stone sculptures. His most famous photograph, and the single most iconic image of the Case Study movement, is Pierre Koenig's No. 22 (1959-60). Two young women, sitting pretty in white dresses, look perfectly at ease in a beautiful, frightening, cantilevered structure hovering over the sodium shimmer of the Los Angeles basin, whose streets appear to continue Koenig's parallel perspective to infinity. But, more often, Shulman makes spectral poetry from the conjunction of Modern architecture and arid nature, an example of which is his exterior, night-time view of Richard Neutra's silver-fronted Desert House (1946), in Colorado, whose mercuric pool and silhouetted reclining figure on a lilo, look like mirage-memories of the American Dream.