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Author Sam Lubell Talks About the Rare Julius Shulman Photos of LA

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Julius Shulman is usually thought of as the great photographer and booster of modern architecture, and his photos of Neutras, Schindlers, and one particular Koenig are all over the place. But Shulman shot tons of photos of Southern California's neighborhoods, landscapes, and landmarks over his lifetime (he started at Richard Neutra's Kun House in 1936 and died in 2009), thousands of which are socked away from view at the Getty Research Institute. The new book Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis is filled with those never- and rarely-seen photos. Via email, co-author Sam Lubell tells us how he got tipped off to the secret Getty stash and about combing through more than 20,000 Shulman photos with co-author Douglas Woods.

Curbed LA: Where did the idea for the book come from?

Sam Lubell: Originally [publisher] Rizzoli wanted to do a book about Shulman’s interior photographs. But it was clear that Julius was interested in branching out beyond just interiors, and honestly so were we, so we started looking beyond that. Then Doug Woods and I got a tip from Anne Blecksmith, who was at the time the curator of the Getty’s Shulman archive. She pointed us in the direction of Shulman’s mostly unseen work, much of it for less elite firms, for large corporations, and for anybody else you can think of. These included shots not just of famous architects’ buildings, but of cityscapes, factories, construction sites, shopping centers and so on. This, it turns out, was the bulk of his work as a photographer, but it was the least published. We knew pretty quickly after that that we were going to head in that direction.

CLA: And Shulman knew about the book and encouraged the book before he died, right?

SL: Yes we worked on developing the book with Julius for about a year before he died. We got to know him pretty well and we continued to work with his daughter Judy McKee after he died. She wrote a great forward. Getting to know Julius really helped us put the book together. We learned about his approach, about his love of LA, and about what made him such a special photographer and person. He really was a legend in LA.

CLA: You reportedly spent a year and a half making trips to the Getty Research Institute to go through the photos. Did you get through the 260,000 images and prints that are in the Julius Shulman Photography Archive?

SL: Yes we did spend about that much time at the Getty looking at pictures. We saw thousands of thousands of pictures, but we couldn’t get through all of them. There was just too many. We honestly lost count of how many images we saw, but my estimate is probably from 20,000 to 30,000 pictures. It’s staggering how many pictures Julius took over the course of his career. He shot just about every day of his career, which lasted somewhere around 70 years.

CLA: Can anyone access the database, and what kind of permission did you have to get to publish the photos?

SL: Most of the pictures we looked at cannot be accessed by the general public. We needed to get permission to the Special Collections room at the Getty Research Institute to see most of them. The Getty is working on scanning and digitizing most of [Shulman's] photos, but for now the majority can only be seen at the Getty.

CLA: What are some of your favorites in the book and why?

SL: It’s always tough to choose my favorites, but probably my favorite is a shot taken from the rooftop of the El Cortez hotel in San Diego (p. 210). It's of a man looking down, captivated by the city beneath him. I see that man looking down as Julius; the awestruck observer of the excitement going on around him. You can sense how taken Julius was by such places. In the picture—which is cinematically framed by the large windows and the door—you see some of San Diego's major landmarks; like the Santa Fe Depot, the brick towers and the harbor with its battleships and carriers. But more than the individual elements and the great historical information, it's the sense of magic and possibility and the almost dreamlike quality of it all that makes this picture special. It's an architectural picture, but it's telling a story. That's what Julius's most successful pictures all did. At heart he was a storyteller more than anything. I think Julius would have made a great movie director or cinematographer. He could find the inherent drama in any picture.

CLA: What sort of input did you get from Shulman's daughter Judy McKee during the process of putting the book together?

SL: Judy wasn’t involved with the picture selection but she was an amazing resource. We spent some great times inside her dad’s house reminiscing about him and learning about him. The dominant theme of the book—that Julius’ fortunes as photographer mirrored those of Los Angeles—really came from her. She was always taken with how much he loved LA, and by how much his outspoken personality and his sense of optimism were a perfect fit for the city.

CLA: Shulman will always be identified with architectural photography, but what surprised you about his take on Los Angeles in some of these photos?

SL: What surprised me most was to see just how talented he was at capturing subjects that stretched far beyond individual buildings. I love his energetic cityscapes, his shots of grocery stores, of parties, and of families sitting around the table, to name just a very few. He brought his same eye for composition and drama and his same personality and energy to every type of shot he took.

CLA: This is your fourth book. What are you working on next?

SL: I wrote an introduction for the new book Steven Ehrlich: Houses, which just came out, and I’m working on a few more books. Since no contracts have been signed I probably shouldn’t mention too much. But assuming they move ahead one is about the work of another famous LA architectural photographer Marvin Rand, and another is about mid-century architect Pierre Koenig, who designed Case Study #22, the subject of Shulman’s most famous shot of all.
· Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis [Amazon]
· Julius Shulman Archives [Curbed LA]