Photographer in search of the ideal
Julius Shulman must surely count as one of the half-dozen or so most influential (and accomplished) architectural photographers of the twentieth century. 'I will embrace and reveal my abundant life's adventures with a camera throughout the world and 44 of the United States,' he announces early in this heavily illustrated volume. But, international though his travels have been, Shulman will always be identified with the American West Coast, and the post-war world of Neutra and the Case Study architects in particular. The night-time image of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House £22 soaring over Los Angeles, the city's grid of lights linking the vectors of the house to the horizon, is just one of Shulman's shots to become iconic (see opposite).
Shulman doesn't underestimate his worth: 'My ability to fathom the depths of a design and record it created a transcendent visual product,' he says. One assignment was a hotel in Hawaii: 'When this photograph was presented, with a scream of delight the pr lady reached for her telephone.' Frank Lloyd Wright embraces him: 'Shulman, at last someone understands, in a photograph, my statement - you have penetrated the spirit of my design!'
Taschen's book threads Shulman's text - a memoir of commissions and encounters, with intermittent reflections on his craft - through a chronological selection of some 250 photographs in colour and black- and-white, many with a page (sometimes more) to themselves. The breadth of interests in his long career is effectively conveyed: alongside the Case Study classics are Yucatan pyramids, Henry Moore bronzes, the ramifications of a skeletal leaf. Stylistic hallmarks emerge: a taste for dramatic perspective (the viewer's eye drawn deep into space); his anticipating, then exploiting, the optimum effects of light (balancing natural and artificial sources); his strategic choice and placement of objects - and, for that matter, people - in the staging of a scene (though this presages the 'lifestyle' fixations of Wallpaper magazine and its ilk); and an unmistakeable feeling for landscape.
While Shulman's reminiscences should have been edited more sharply, they are sometimes amusing: Neutra waving a small tree branch in front of the camera in an effort to conceal an unfortunate junction; a clash of considerable egos in a frosty photo-shoot with Henry Moore ('Shulman, yours is not the correct point of view for this piece.') And Shulman is frank about the means that he employs to visual ends - his use of infra-red film, for instance, for haze-free distances and white-toned foliage. The idealising, glamorising nature of architectural photography has long been noted; Shulman, however, would maintain that his skill is simply to realise a designer's intentions to the full. But isn't the perfected image almost invariably a partial lie?
Architecture isn't what it used to be, is Shulman's recurrent refrain: 'I react with disgust at the pages upon pages devoted to the so-called innovative 'new' structures by the heroes among present-day achievers,' he says. 'We pay too much homage to current works and lose sight of the design contributions of past decades.' It is a pity, then, that Taschen hasn't served Shulman better in presenting his interpretation of those decades. For all the impact of individual photographs, there is a drabness to the overall look of the book (the typeface doesn't help), and - especially irritating - someone has decided that the pictures profit from coloured backgrounds, so pages in green, blue, pink, yellow or black appear at random. Turn to pp 142-143 before purchasing: a block of text has gone missing in my review copy but Taschen promises its restitution in a future reprinting.