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Architecture

Transcending the Frame — Architectural Photographers Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai

Case Study House No. 22, Los Angeles, Calif., Iconic Girls, 1960; Pierre Koenig, Architect. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute

In Built Upon Love: Architectural Longing After Ethics and Aesthetics (MIT Press), architectural historian Alberto Perez-Gomez puts forward the enticing idea that “true architecture is concerned with far more than fashionable form, affordable homes, and sustainable development.” The architecture he speaks of responds to the aspiration for an eloquent place to live.  Julius Shulman’s magnificent oeuvre of photography maintains that the impression of order resonant with the occupant’s dreams is well within the domain of such architecture. A sublime lucidity anchors the compositions of spaces photographed by Shulman. Even at 98, he remained a paragon of California Cool. Though laid-back, his mastery over the medium was palpable. An exemplary eight-decade career elevated his work to iconic status and him to legend. Shulman transcended the frame by perfectly representing that invisible quality of carefree glamour, so eagerly sought throughout the world, despite its ephemeral nature.

Just weeks before Julius Shulman’s passing from this world, Fabrik had the privilege of accompanying textile designer and family friend Alexandra Becket for an interview, at his Laurel Canyon residence and studio. Designed for him in 1949 by noted Modernist architect Raphael Soriano, it is now designated an architecturally significant structure, due to its being the only remaining unaltered steel frame house built by Soriano. Last year, as a cloth-bound limited edition of 1000, Nazraeli Press published by Shulman and Soriano, Julius Shulman: The Building of My Home and Studio. Still embodying his desire to narrate the beauty and livability of modern architecture, Shulman elegantly demonstrated the harmony of his own intentionally balanced environment. Although his photographs reflect what most pursue within the California dream: that intoxicating blend of ambition, success and glamour, his life and career appear the result of an incredible consistency of vision.

Always the consummate professional, his impeccably kept and extensive working archives of over 260,000 prints, negative and color transparencies, since acquired by the Getty Research Institute, have graced the pages of several excellent books documenting rarely before seen mid-century modern architecture, a few of which are even devoted solely to his work. As if to humor our inquiry about whether his fastidiousness and exceptional organizational skills were innate or learned, Julius referred us to Modernism Rediscovered, the 3-volume set of books put out by TASCHEN in 2007. “They served a purpose, for the architects and the owners,” he stated. Shulman’s life work became a visual record of and testament to the complex allure this unique metropolis holds for the entire world and perhaps especially, its inhabitants. The recently released documentary film ‘Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman’ by director Eric Bricker celebrates and explores the man and the truly extensive influence of his work.

For Wright, Neutra, Lautner, Eames, Koenig, Schindler, Becket, Ain, Soriano, just some of the mid-century masters whose practices were observed by Shulman, responsible design was environmentally involved. “I was weaned and influenced by, on the world of architecture, of design based on integrity, the total design, indoors, outdoors.”

When Fabrik asked if Shulman might like to share some observations regarding his role in helping to construct the ideology of 1960s Los Angeles, he shared the following…

SHULMAN — That doesn’t mean anything. Those are words. This is the kind of question that we’re asked quite frequently. When I look at a building, house, commercial building, I don’t go there in a pre- determined consideration. When I go to see a house, I look at it, take out my camera, the composition that comes out is pretty straight-forward. There’s no way of determining in advance what you’re going to do when you photograph any building, like how do I produce these compositions…the best way to describe it would be to take a group into a house or building, ‘Here we are standing, look at this space, how do you put it together, into a composition’…in other words, there’s no determined visual action.

I’ve worked with Richard Neutra…in the beginning, he’d point out to me, to my assistants, what he wanted to show, or what he did not want to show. Most architects, when they call me to do a project, leave me alone, with my assistants, and we set up my own compositions, determine what i personally feel portrays the nature, the spirit of the design… With Neutra in most cases, his insistence was to show the elements which portrayed his own design. Therefore, his work which he wanted to show photographically did not persist in portraying what I would see in the same space…frequently, most frequently, I would show a Polaroid print to the client and then an 11 by 14 enlargement of each scene. Most architects were dismayed because I saw in my composition elements that had escaped their own viewing. I had to be good. That’s all.

You cannot portray a scene by describing it in advance. You go in with the architect, the client, and you start working. All this initial enterprise comes out in a photograph, it represents a good estimate of what the architects wants to show. It’s a blessing to be able to do this, and I say to students who are learning photography or architecture, forget it. You cannot lay down a rule. There’s no such thing. So maybe the answer would be …the only way in retrospect is to take a group into a building that you’d like to have a conversation about. Let’s go to the building.”

FABRIK: Does LA continue to create iconic buildings and if so, please share some that have made an impression on you?

SHULMAN: Well, hell, what is an iconic building? Any one of my large prints out there on the wall could be called iconic.

If you visualize, as we’re here now, a building that you’re familiar with, in downtown L.A., that we could go together sometime, early some morning, a public building, or a library downtown, walk in there with my asst. with a camera, and make a test, pull up a Polaroid picture and pass it around, this is what we’re looking at, and until we see a, b, and c, on the other hand, one of you may ask oh, but you’re not showing that part there, and you might say to make another composition, or you may find that significant enough. It is so much up to each person to make their own selection. There is no way of portraying a space better than being there on the scene. It’s a visual experience. I don’t know if we can answer a question that way.

FABRIK: You were here at the very beginning of modern architecture. Did it seem like it was a revolution in architecture, did it seem like there was something happening, like there was a movement, in the 30s and 40s when all the boxier buildings, the new modern building started coming around?

SHULMAN: I can’t respond to that kind of question. I didn’t see any difference.

FABRIK: Many mid-century buildings in L.A. are threatened by new development (Shulman says matter-of-factly, that’s okay) rather than restored and re-used.  What’s your reaction to the planned destruction of the Century Plaza Hotel and the Century City Gateway West Tower?

SHULMAN: It so happens that the Century City Hotel was one of the very first photographs I did for editors of magazines. It’s a good building. It serves a purpose for a lot of weddings, bar mitzvahs and every kind of ceremony, funeral services. It did serve a purpose. Are we ready now to tear it down? Is there any arbitration? Who decides how and where to tear down such type of a building, a hotel, many people say it’s been around for 20, 30, 40 years, it’s performed a function…it’s difficult. The architects have to meet with the owners, and the public would react to tearing down that wall, or another, and replacing it with something else entirely different…it’s a good building. I’ve taken some awfully good photographs of that same good building. But has it been sufficient? Or has the building been used to its use and function? No, it’s not as good as it was originally. That can happen, to authorize a change.

FABRIK: Are you involved in preserving cultural architecture in Los Angeles?

SHULMAN: Of course I am. I’ll always be there working, whether it’s an old building or new building!

Shulman’s instinct to stage suggestions of stories within his photographs makes them timeless revelations of our fascination with our constructions and our selves. It is to his credit that the iconic image, more often than not, occupies a greater psychic space than the iconic building. The symbiosis between the real and photographed building, as represented by Shulman’s compositions, is what gave modernist architecture its eloquence. In an era when architecture was fixated on the East Coast and Europe, Shulman articulated the quintessential image of Possibility, which was to be found ‘out west.’

Interview with Shulman Collaborator Juergen Nogai

Juergen Nogai with Julius Shulman

The day after we met with Shulman, Fabrik had attended a lecture at the newly opened Annenberg Space for Photography, where photographer Juergen Nogai and architectural historian Wim de Wit, who heads the Department of Architecture and Design at the Getty Research Institute, were speaking about Shulman’s work, their collaboration over the past decade, as well as Nogai’s multifaceted career as a widely exhibited fine art and commercial photographer.

Juergen Nogai was born in Germany, where he spent most of his professional life. He opened a studio more than 30 years ago doing “fine art” photography, and eventually branched out to advertising and architectural work. He also specialized in art photography, working for museums and private collectors. When Juergen relocated to Los Angeles in 2000, he almost immediately began a very rewarding collaboration with Julius Shulman, which continues to this day.

We were thrilled to ask Juergen some questions about photography as well.

FABRIK: What is the value of informing the public about architecture?

NOGAI: Do we have to inform people about architecture they have to use, or do we have to inform architects about the people they are building for? I think that what defines the difference between good and bad architecture can be reduced to the functionality of buildings – how is it working, or how are we living and working in it and out of these aspects should follow a clean and exciting design. I think it is important to document the architecture in the context of the use and educate people by showing the building, and explaining it by giving them a tour with my pictures. The observer has to figure out if this kind of architecture works for him, and if he likes it or not. I try to be as objective as possible by giving him visual help to make his decision. That means, I should also be able to photograph architecture, which is not my personal favorite, and still do a good job documenting it for my client.

Disney Hall, Los Angeles, Frank Gehry, Architect. Julius Shulman and Juergen Nogai

FABRIK: What is the relationship between the photographed and the “real” building?

NOGAI: Without an architect there is no building and there wouldn’t be a photograph. Today we see a lot of “non- existent” buildings in strange virtual computer worlds. In my photography of architecture, I try to be objective with my subjective eye. I try to understand the buildings I will photograph and create their unique story. Our reality is always subjective, it is what we see, realize and feel. I hope, that my clientele will find the ‘real’ building in my photographs.

FABRIK: Do digital technologies alter the way you work and your experience of built spaces?

NOGAI: I am still working 80% analog with high quality large format cameras and lenses, which gives me more creative and technical possibilities, and the quality of film still feels better for me personally than digital images. I think that digital photography created more ‘shooting’ photographers, because there are no film costs involved, there is no risk. By that I mean that the thinking process comes at the end by editing countless images, instead of thinking upfront and creating your story. This means for example, that you create the right composition, find the right position / angel, watch the natural and artificial light situations, people, etc. and make a decision for the tools you have to use to capture, what you have in mind. The camera comes always at the end. I am not exploring the world through the camera, I use it to collect my ideas.

My images are normally not altered, where as digital photography, because of its technology, leads itself to a lot of after the fact alteration: in light balancing, color shifting, correcting tilting lines etc., because you always have to go through the computer and its software to look at your images. All of that does not mean that digital photography is in general not appropriate, but it needs a lot of discipline and it is much better placed in press, sport and documentary photography. Let’s say it this way, why should I use a racing car for heavy loads or sight seeing tours – architectural photography needs an understanding of the building, a constructed view to tell its story, so that a recipient can understand it without a floor plan.

FABRIK: Please share the names of some artists who have won your respect/admiration and why.

NOGAI: I am coming from classic art study backgrounds, which lead me to the ideas of the BAUHAUS. So I would say this confrontation with a broad spectrum of art and history, makes it very difficult to name single artists, but for sure a genius such as Da Vinci, challenges not only painters, video artist, musicians, but photographers as well. Among the photographers I admire, I would have to name Alfred Stieglitz, who I feel was so important for his photographic life documentary work, Andre Kertesz, with his personal photographic composition, and unorthodox camera angles, which created his personal photographic style of telling his story. The Bechers, who photographed buildings with large format cameras, in a straightforward and intensely austere ‘objective’ compositions. Reinhart Wolf, who inspired me with his incredible “Faces of Buildings”. I could go on and name more, because I am in general always interested in the world that surrounds me and shapes me. It is like that in my relationship to Julius Shulman. He influences me, and in some ways I also influence him.

Blue Jay House, Los Angeles • Zoltan Pali, Architect. © Julius Shulman and Juergen NogaiFABRIK: Do you collect art, either photography or other forms?

NOGAI: Yes, my wife and I collect art. We collect photography, paintings, weavings, etc. I am more on the side of collecting photography and my wife Jeannie, who is an illustrator, is more responsible for paintings. But we both are open for everything we are confronted and moved by.

FABRIK: Please share something you love about living and working in Los Angeles.

NOGAI: The variety of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” What I mean by that is the tension that is created between the different colorful cultures and people. The extreme contrast between wealth and poverty, the social problems. You find the glamour of Hollywood, and the people selling this glamour as “Star Maps” and organizing “Star Tours” and then on the other side you have the homeless people pushing their shopping carts through the alleys. The diverse social context gives this city a special dynamic.

Los Angeles is for me a city, which is exciting in its enormous amount of different expressions in art, architecture, film, theatre and music. There are not so many places in our world with such a vibrant and diverse art scene as we have here. The extreme contrast between well thought out architecture, and then the functioning, stucco “living boxes” and over-decorated displays of wealth. It took me some time to realize that this city is permanently pushing me forward in my creative life, and also in putting me in touch with many people with whom I learned different ways of looking at our world.

FABRIK: What do you most love photographing?

NOGAI: I’m a visual person. In that way, I try to capture what I see, and that can be people, social problems, or design in its various forms. Everything that catches my attention, I somehow freeze in my camera as a time document, or just as a creative play with color and form.

Architectural photography, of course, became one of my main interests. Through this profession, I am communicating with architecture and design of all kinds, very intensely, and it became a major part in my photographic life. I feel very lucky that I can do in my life, what I love to do.

As collaborators, Shulman and Nogai have produced books, publications, numerous magazine features and countless private and public assignments. Their work will be on show until August 22nd, 2009, at Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, CA.

In Spring 2010, there will be another show at C/O Berlin, International Forum for Visual Dialogue, in Berlin, Germany, followed by an exhibit in September 2010 at Zephyr Gallery in the Museum Mannheim in Mannheim, Germany.

As well as working with Julius Shulman, Juergen works on his own assignments and projects, producing numerous books for publishers including Harry N. Abrams Inc., and Taschen.

Alexandra Becket on Julius Shulman

Alexandra Becket with Julius Shulman. Photo: Ted VanCleave

Julius Shulman photographed one of my grandfather, Welton Becket’s earliest architectural projects in the late 30’s, the Pan Pacific Auditorium.

I never saw the Pan Pacific before it was destroyed by a fire in 1989. When I came across a large format photo of it in Taschen’s “Julius Shulman, Architecture and It’s Photography,” the composition left a strong impression on me. Julius took the photo from a large empty lot to the west, so the entire auditorium filled the frame. It shows the structure’s strong horizontal layout, beautiful rounded corners and four prominent streamline modern towers reaching into sky. Buildings live on through photography and can teach us so much about our past.

When I met Julius for the first time with my sister Alisa, he invited us to his home studio. Julius shared his library of negatives with us, showed us some portraits he took of our grandfather and gave us a carefully typed list of photos he took for Welton Becket. We loved hearing Julius’s recollections of what it was like working with our grandfather, including specific stories such as a chance encounter they had sitting next to each other on a flight to Egypt in the 60s when the Nile Hilton Hotel was being built.

The last time I saw Julius was for this interview, just a short while ago. He insisted that you couldn’t describe how to photograph a building. You have to be on site to capture a composition at that moment. As you will read, he expressed an ardent desire to take us or anyone interested in photography out to the field to learn about composition. He spoke passionately about demonstrating his technique, sharing his knowledge, and teaching others. It was inspiring and fulfilling to hear his enthusiasm for photography and his desire to share it with others.

Links:

  • Story by Aparna Bakhle-Ellis.
  • Interview with Shulman conducted by Alexandra Becket.

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About Aparna Bakhle

Aparna Bakhle-Ellis is a writer enthralled by the consonance and dissonance of ‘being’ in Los Angeles. L'écriture féminine, outsider art, and altered states of consciousness rank high among her myriad interests. She is also Fabrik’s Managing Editor. 

View all posts by Aparna Bakhle →

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