This article was published in Domus, November 8th 2009. For the link click here.
“52 stairs?” exclaimed Julius with a sharp scolding tone.
“That’s ridiculous.” He eagerly exited the car and paced up and down the street three times looking up at our home. “Here! See this angle,” he professed as the inconvenience of navigating the stairs at age ninety-eight with his Porsche design walker succumbed to his curiosity of architecture and his excitement of discovering where to frame a view.
I assisted Julius up our stairs though he did not need much help with the exception of retrieving his slippers every few steps. With a tight grip on the handrail, Julius Shulman, the greatest American architecture photographer on my arm, shuffled upwards, his eyes locked onto the cantilevered wood box above him ignoring the 52 moments of escalation. It was a dreamy Sunday afternoon with a glowing haze common to Hollywood Hills in the late Fall. Once inside I asked a simple question driven from my nervous energy. “What do you think?”. “Quiet! Do you want me to shoot it or not”?, Julius lashed out as he walked the first of four circles around the interior of the house. Shulman with a determined expression, raced his red Porsche through the open floor plan looking up to the left and right searching for something.
Some two years prior to Mr. Shulman’s scouting visit I met him at his house, arranged by a client who had befriended the legend. I traveled four blocks to Julius’ home bringing a large scale model of the home I had planned to build, not knowing if it would ever happen. I sought his opinion hoping to receive encouraging support and his interest in photographing it. With my entourage of my former wife and client, we visited Shulman in his studio. He was spirited and energetic. His passion for architectural photography had not dimmed through the decades, nor quiet revealing the origin of the rumors about his vociferous opinions.
I presented the home in a few short statements. A moment of awkward silence followed before he bellowed, “Why would you want to live in a prison” as he placed his hands in a grid masking his face. Disapproving of my design to clad the home in louvers he began a 45-minute scathing critique of the errors and problems created by architects through the decades and relating it to the design before him. I sank into my chair feeling the brunt of his disapproval and the weight of my predecessor’s mistakes as Julius saw them. In a strident and billowing voice after concluding his commentary he piped, “but call me when its done,... Ill photograph it.
”My wife telephoned him after we had been living in the house over a year, enticing him with homemade borscht, Russian dumplings, and chocolates. He responded to comfort food that reminded him of his parents who immigrated from Russia. I still don’t know if he came that day because of the photographic commission, the food, or my ex-wife's company.
After scouting the house Julius sat down on our sofa for the better part of an hour discussing a variety of subjects, and again after some highly critical and humbling jabs he agreed to shoot it again.On the day Shulman arrived with his camera his control of the production was like watching a director and artist sculpting the spatial atmosphere to create the vision he imagined while staring through the viewfinder. I followed him around hanging on his words until he snapped, “do you want me to shoot it or not!.”
At the beginning of the shoot in no more than a minute he arrived at the back corner of the kitchen looking through the dining room and into the sitting area beyond. He had evaluated the future lighting conditions for the day scheduling the other staked out shots relative to the ever changing lighting conditions in a predominantly south facing glass structure.
“This house is photogenic”, he stated in a slow and highly articulated breath. My hand trembling from nervous excitement, I slowly asked in the driest possible voice, “why”? “Because of the rhythm of the repeating beams” Julius offered. His energy that day was strong and engaging, full of enthusiasm for his life’s work spanning seventy-three years.
Sitting, eating, and working with this giant of cultural significance has bestowed me with a story to add to the documents about his life, and a small insight into the man who successfully delivered to the world his historic review of California modern architecture through his art of photography…and his memorable opinionated rants.
Julius, Thank you.
Jeffrey Eyster, AIA