To the mission architecture of the old travel posters, Neutra and other California modernists added new symbols of the good life, or at least their raw materials: the walls of glass, inviting patios, flat roofs, and sliding doors appropriate for free spirits in a kind climate. To turn those buildings into icons, however, someone had to transform steel and stone into reproducible images, emotionally resonant and frozen in time. That person was the photographer Julius Shulman, who met Neutra in 1936. One of Neutra’s apprentices was boarding with Shulman’s sister, and he took young Julius along on a visit to the nearly complete Kun House. Just for fun, Shulman, then an aimless student who’d been auditing courses at Berkeley and UCLA for seven years, shot photos of the unusual house, using his pocket camera and a tripod. When Neutra saw the snapshots, he recognized the young man’s special talent: an ability to capture the aesthetic and emotional intention of designs. For the next thirty-four years, until Neutra’s death in 1970, the two collaborated. Through his work with Neutra, Shulman met other California modernists, including Rudolf Schindler, Raphael Soriano, Charles and Ray Eames, Albert Frey, John Lautner, and Gregory Ain. The architects built the buildings, but Shulman created the evocative images through which we know them.
His 1947 twilight shot of Neutra’s Kaufmann House, in Palm Springs, with Mrs. Kaufmann reclining by the pool and the bright house sharply delineated against the misty desert hills, has come to represent Palm Springs, mid-century modernism, and Neutra himself. Even more resonant is Shulman’s 1960 photograph of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, another twilight scene. Here two young ladies converse in a glass-enclosed living room that juts out toward the sprawling city grid of tiny lights. The architecture critic Paul Goldberger called the photograph “one of those singular images that sums up an entire city at a moment in time.” Less obviously glamorous but equally inviting is the 1946 photo of Gordon Drake’s tiny, ingeniously designed home. Shooting from seated eye level across the living room, Shulman draws the viewer through the open glass door to the patio, where three young friends read and converse in an intimate space protected by the hillside immediately behind them. “He has portrayed what it’s like to live in the modern house,” Shulman pronounced in an interview, suggesting how I should describe his work.
In fact, he has portrayed something more powerful: an ideal of what it’s like to live in a modern house. Shulman’s photographs are not simply beautiful objects in themselves or re-creations of striking buildings; they are psychologically compelling images that invite viewers to project themselves into the scene. An architectural photograph can conjure three possible desires: “I want that photograph,” “I want that building,” or “I want that life.” Shulman’s best work evokes all three. At a time when the public thought of modernism as a cold, impersonal style suited only for office buildings, he made its houses look seductively human. His photos do not merely record modern architecture, California style; they sell it. “You make people want to say, ‘Gosh, I could lie down on that couch and take a nap.’ Or, ‘I’d love to sit at that table and have dinner there. Or entertain company around the fireplace,’” he recently told an audience at the National Building Museum, in Washington, D.C.