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Julius Shulman and me

July 16, 2009 |  4:10 pm

 Shulmanathome

Not long after arriving in Los Angeles in 2004, I answered the phone one afternoon to hear the voice -- a bit gravelly, but otherwise remarkably upbeat and open, much like his photographs -- of Julius Shulman. I can’t recall what he was telephoning about that first time, but before long he had invited me to visit his house and studio, a low-slung, steel-framed composition by Raphael Soriano tucked near the top of Laurel Canyon. He didn't have to ask twice -- meeting Shulman and seeing that house had been right near the top of my new-to-L.A. wish list.

In that first and subsequent visits there, I remember Shulman being generous with his time as well as with his memories: taking me to the far corners of his rather sizable, if somewhat overgrown, garden, as well as, when I pressed him for a certain recollection, to the distant reaches of his own brain to pick up and dust off this or that anecdote. Even after his huge archive of more than 250,000 images, slides and other pieces had been carted off to the Getty, his studio, just off the curving uphill driveway, seemed stuffed with memories and objects — including, as I recall, a letter on the wall, hanging somewhat askew, to Shulman from Frank Lloyd Wright.

He was known for a certain blunt irascibility by that point in his life – he was 94 when we met, for God’s sake – but I never saw that side of his personality. He was dogged in his view that life in Los Angeles, as he told me once, was "simply glorious," and that put him at odds with the generation of photographers, architects and artists who followed him, many of whom were more interested in exploring a grittier, less elevated vision of what it meant to be here.

But why would his attitude be any different? Look at the possibilities L.A. had opened for him, the life it had made available. For me, struggling to reconcile the soaring real-estate market with my own dreams of living in architectural surroundings like Shulman's, his optimism sometimes frustrated me. The kind of life he had made for himself, after all, seemed impossible for my generation to replicate.

In my experience he was both low-key and agreeable; sometimes tired-seeming, but never bitter. He always answered his own phone, though it seemed as the years went on it took more and more rings before he’d pick up and say, in a sing-songy, optimistic voice that seemed to deserve a permanent exclamation point, “Julius Shulman!”

In general, as I point out in this appreciation of his work and influence, he struck me as more comfortable as a promoter than a self-promoter; when he called me, as he did a handful of times each year, it was almost always because he wanted to drum up some coverage in the paper not for himself but for a colleague or friend.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo credit: Iris Schneider / Los Angeles Times

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