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The matchless eye of Julius Shulman

September 20, 2009 | 10:51 pm

Maybe you wouldn't think a photographer whose subject matter was mid-century modern California architecture could become a cultural icon of immense appeal.

You'd think wrong. If it surprises you, it certainly surprised him. At Julius Shulman's memorial Sunday at the Getty Center, Shulman fans from California Supreme Court chief justice Ron George to actress Lily Tomlin and DA-turned-photographer Gil Garcetti paid their respects to the man who died in July at age 98 after a career of re-introducing architectural California to itself through the dazzling clarity of his camera. His lapidary photographs of homes by renowned architects, in the Hollywood Hills and Palm Springs especially, prove that black and white photography is an exceptional genre with composition and esthetics of its own -- not just something that photographers did while they waited around for someone to invent color film.

In the way of these things, it was more celebration than mourning, especially at the Getty, where his archival work, according to Getty Research Institute director Andrew Perchuk, is so popular and so often requested that the Getty has had to reconfigure its policies about reprints and requests.

Julius was a character -- charming, focused, occasionally cantankerous -- ''a handful,'' said his daughter, Judy Shulman McKee. But he was always mindful of how his seminal images of California houses crafted a larger message and image to the world, and cemented LA as a place where the architectural gold standard is, unlike other cities, is most often found in private houses, not public buildings.

McKee talked about her father's relentless optimism and how it reminded her of her dog, who always sat looking at the doorknob, expecting that at any minute the door would open. For Shulman, it did. Architect William Krisel, assigned to work as Shulman's assistant photographing Richard Neutra houses in the 1930s, assured the hundreds in the auditorium that Shulman invariably made the houses look even better in photographs than they did in real life.

And one speaker recalled a recent event at the Arclight -- that's the Cinerama Dome to longtime Angelenos -- featuring that dealt with the work of the LA Conservancy. Shulman announced, ''This book is crap.'' A bit later, at the same event, LA Conservancy supporter Ben Stiller was asked to name his favorite photographer. ''Well,'' he said, ''it WAS Julius Shulman.''

I interviewed Shulman for print and broadcast several times, and last saw him at at the opening of a Gagosian Gallery showing of the work of the French photographer Francois Marie Banier. That was almost exactly two years before Shulman died, but from his wheelchair, he was, as always ,trenchant and peppery and cracking wise.

When a man gets to be as old as Shulman was, you tend to assume he'll just go on forever. And as Sunday's ceremony affirmed, in the most important of ways, he will.

-- Patt Morrison

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