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Altered States of America: Julius Shulman At the Photographers' Gallery

Altered States of America: Julius Shulman At the Photographers’ Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London until 24 September, 2000

The critic P Morton Shand once remarked that ‘without modern photography modern architecture could never have been ‘put across”.While in England this task was accomplished largely by Dell and Wainwright, on America’s West Coast the challenge was taken up by Julius Shulman (born 1910).

In a long 50-year career before his retirement in 1986, he proved himself one of architectural photography’s most masterful and influential exponents.

Self-taught, Shulman owed his career to a 1936 encounter with Richard Neutra, who was impressed by the photographs Shulman had taken of his Kun house in Los Angeles. Neutra subsequently invited him to photograph some of his other works and introduced him to fellow Modernist architects such as Rudolf Schindler and Raphael Soriano. Thereafter Shulman’s career blossomed, and in the post-war period his work was much in demand not only by the professional press but also by popular magazines such as Life and Good Housekeeping.

His most notable association, however, was with Arts & Architecture and its pioneering Case Study House programme, which from 1945 to 1967 saw 26 houses built - of which Shulman photographed 18. It is on these and other domestic works that this small exhibition concentrates.This is the world of California dreamin’ with no hint of its mean streets; of continual sunshine and luminous twilights; of unquenchable optimism; of architecture metamorphosing into lifestyle; above all, of architecture as consumer product.

Here are Shulman’s two most iconic images:

Neutra’s Kaufmann House, Palm Springs (1947), romantically bathed in a soft twilight glow, seeming to rest on the edge of infinity like a figure in a Friedrich painting; and Pierre Koenig’s Case Study house #22 (1960) hovering majestically over the shimmering lights of the LA basin. These images transcend the architecture.They capture a mood - the former suggestive of Modernism’s limitless possibilities, the latter of a country at ease with itself.

Elsewhere, Shulman’s characteristic traits are readily apparent: the deep raking perspective that draws the viewer’s eye precisely where Shulman intends; the dramatic use of light and shadow to delineate form and structure; a compositional strategy in which, unusually, people as well as objects play a prominent role; and a concern for landscape.

Shulman dismisses accusations that he distorts reality, remarking that photographers ‘must realize that good design is seldom accepted. It has to be sold’.Recently Shulman’s own work has been given the hard sell with two major books, postcards, desk diaries, and its representation by a Santa Monica gallery. It is perhaps not surprising then, if regrettable, that the show has the air of a wall-mounted sales catalogue.

Shulman’s work raises important questions about the role of the photographer and about architecture’s relationship to its imagery. Additionally, like the buildings they portray, Shulman’s photographs have been most commonly seen in reproduction - a more informative exhibition would have displayed examples in their published contexts. This is a delightful visual appetiser that leaves you eager for the main course.

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA photographic collection

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