Commerce And Culture November 2006

The Iconographer

In Julius Shulman’s photographs, modern architecture became seductive, comfortable, and immortal

Good architecture, Shulman believes, still promises a better life. He showed me his pictures of the Encino home that the architect Raquel Vert designed for herself in the mid-1990s. Shulman took the street-front photograph when the shadows from the foliage were at their thickest, to create “an effect of privacy and isolation.” Unlike its mid-century predecessors, Vert’s house is not isolated at all; it’s right up against the street, in a tract dense with houses. Her design creates privacy in part by recessing the front door behind a concrete wall. Immediately inside are stairs leading to her office—not downtown in a skyscraper, but upstairs in her home. Just as it mingled indoors and out, California modernism anticipated the reunion of home and work. Ayn Rand, before she decamped to the Empire State Building, wrote in a home office with a wall of glass accordion doors opening to the outside. Since 1950, Shulman has worked in a studio attached to the home designed for him by Soriano. With no commute, he still maintains an active work schedule. He is, he says, “always happy.”

And he is a perfect representative of the drive that shaped Los Angeles in the twentieth century and continues to give rise to new urban dreams. Los Angeles, like New York, was and is a “city of ambition,” the title of Alfred Stieglitz’s 1910 photo of a New York waterfront of towers and steam. But ambition takes a different form in California. West Coast ambition is not the upward thrust of a skyscraper, the drive to be the tallest in a small and crowded space. Californians like fame and money as much as anyone, of course. But (Hollywood agents aside) their dearest ambitions, like their architecture, are more horizontal, with room for everyone to erect an individual marker. This ambition may be less cutthroat, but it is, in its very openness, more universally demanding. Opting out of the quest for status or money is easy, even virtuous, compared with saying you don’t care whether your life leaves a mark. The things outsiders find absurd or threatening about California—the self-fashioned spiritual practices, the bodybuilder/action-star governor, the crazy diets, the junk bonds, the endless supply of new fictions, the UCLA- and Palo Alto–born Internet—do share a certain grandiosity, a ridiculous desire to change the world, or at least oneself. Better not to admit such ambitions, or so goes the fable easterners love to repeat: the story of the disillusioned California dreamer.

Storytelling, like photography, is a matter of selection and framing. The photographer Edward Weston “fell in love with stunning cracks in buckly plaster,” Neutra complained. “His wonderful photos could have served as evidence in court against a plastering contractor.” Understandably, the architect preferred Shulman’s idealized portraits. Both kinds of photographs were selective, yet also true. Shulman’s life and work remind us that some people do change the world, or at least their little piece of it. The photographer has not only crafted an oeuvre of more than a quarter-million prints, negatives, and transparencies. He has transformed the hillside behind his own modern home from bare dirt into a semitropical woods. “I’ve got a jungle,” he said proudly. “I made this myself.”

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Virginia Postrel is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Her blog, the Dynamist, can be found at More

Contributing editor for The Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style and The Future and Its Enemies. Editor-in-chief of

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