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At the Julius Shulman memorial

September 21, 2009 |  2:56 pm

Julius Shulman from 2003

On Sunday afternoon, the Getty Research Institute held a memorial service for architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who died in July at the age of 98.

The Getty Center's Harold Williams Auditorium was packed with architects, photographers, curators, historians, family members and a small smattering of celebrities. The program mixed personal reminiscences from architect William Krisel and architectural historian Thomas Hines, among many others, with a short panel discussion and a number of filmed snippets of the photographer at work and in conversation at his house and studio above Laurel Canyon.

Assuredly paced, and for the most part funnier than sad, the memorial reflected something fundamental about Shulman’s relentlessly upbeat if occasionally irascible personality.

It also offered reassurance that the Shulman archive, which includes a staggering 260,000 photographs and other items, is so far being well tended. In particular, the GRI deserves credit for seeing the archive not just as a resource for scholars but also as a means of outreach: a mechanism for conversation and debate about the city and its architectural heritage.

The organizers of the event, led by Wim de Wit, head of the GRI’s Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art, were rightly reluctant to pile too much Larger Meaning atop the memorial's anecdotes and slide shows.

Nonetheless, it was nearly impossible, while sitting in the dark watching it all unfold, not to think that it wasn't just Julius Shulman who was being eulogized and laid symbolically to rest. It was also a certain attitude about what Los Angeles means, here and abroad, and how photographers and architects alike ought to frame life in the city.

After all, in the years before his death Shulman was the greatest living symbol of the idea that Los Angeles and its architecture were synonymous with both expansion and innovation. In that sense, the memorial was another bit of evidence that L.A. is getting a little worse at crafting the future -- as icons of invention like Shulman pass into history -- and a little better at talking about and understanding itself. We are slowly trading initiative for perspective, which is perhaps the fate of any big city as it settles into middle age.

Nearly every speaker touched on Shulman's innate and irrepressible optimism, which was a fundamental element not just of his personality but also of his work. His famous black-and-white photographs of designs by Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, Gregory Ain and many others were not just, as Hines noted, marked by clarity and high contrast. They were also carried aloft by a certain airiness of spirit, a lively confidence that announced that Los Angeles was the place where architecture was being sharpened and throwing off sparks from its daily contact with the cutting edge.

Indeed, Shulman's great success was due in part to the fact that he came of age in a period when there was no barrier between the idea of promoting Los Angeles and of uncompromised architectural creativity. Usually these two notions are locked in at least a symbolic struggle: The businessman is the enemy of the artist, and where profit and growth take root they unavoidably crowd out the flowering of authentic creativity.

Certainly, by the 1970s, many of our most talented architects had begun to adopt that attitude, designing buildings that aimed to subvert mass culture or crass profiteering or at least reflect the tensions and inequities in contemporary society. Shulman's Los Angeles -- particularly the quickly expanding city he documented in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s when he was in his prime -- was by contrast a place where business directly fueled artistic and architectural creativity and vice versa, often without guilt or any sense of contradiction.

Shulman saw himself as a working photographer first, a booster for Los Angeles second and an artist not at all; many of Sunday's speakers, including his daughter, Judy McKee, remarked that Shulman was surprised (though also partly vindicated) near the end of his life when his work was discovered and promoted as art by gallery owners, curators, collectors and publishers.

Shulman lived long enough to experience not only the bitterness of watching a generation of younger photographers -- many with a darker, messier view of Los Angeles than he had -- supplant him in the public eye, but also to enjoy a rediscovery of his work and of the midcentury architecture he loved and championed. By the time he reached his nineties he had outlasted the very idea of aesthetic cycles and seemed to exist contentedly outside of churning fashion or taste. He had proudly settled his archive at the Getty while continuing to photograph buildings with a new partner, Juergen Nogai.

In that sense Sunday’s gathering was nicely redundant. Before he died, after all, Shulman was able to enjoy several victory laps of adoration and acclaim.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Related coverage:

Julius Shulman dies at 98; celebrated photographer of modernist architectureJulius Shulman and me

Julius Shulman and me

Julius Shulman's photos promoted the idea of modern Southern California living

Photo: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press


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