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Julius Shulman THE Architectural Photographer

It always surprises me how ignorant I can be of certain aspects of architecture. The item I most recently discovered on my list of ignorance was architectural photography. I came across a film (Visual Acoustics) on Netflix about some Julius Shulman guy who was an architectural photographer. I try to watch just about anything I can get my hands on that has to do with architecture, so I figured I had to watch it.

Julius Shulman is the man. I had no idea what a large majority of the images in my head were taken by this guy. It seems that he was practically the sole photographer of many of the mid-century greats. Much of the iconic imagery of Neutra, Wright, Soriano, Koenig, etc, etc was taken by Julius. Any fan of modern architecture will surely recognize this image, which I consider to be the defining image of modern residential design. Julius Shulman presents, Case Study House #22:

(Stahl House), click image for source.Besides being many people’s eyes when it came to architecture, he seemed to be a great guy overall. Very concerned with the environment and LA’s relatively disastrous consumption of land (and water for that matter). He was also quite full of himself, in a great way. He knew he was the best, and it wouldn’t have made sense for him to pretend otherwise. The documentary had current footage as well as footage of interviews from many years ago, in the beginning I just thought he was a funny sarcastic old guy, but as it turns out, he has been funny and sarcastic his whole life.

The film began with an interesting figure, “for every one person that sees a work of architecture in person, 10,000 see it in photographs. I found this figure to be very interesting on many levels. Initially, and rightfully so, it awakened me to the extreme importance of architectural photography. People are able to study images of a building and feel that they have a relatively intimate knowledge of the project. As a regular reader of Dwell, their images have become so integrated in my mental design catalog that they are of equal value to many of the home’s I’ve actually visited. Though for myself, I must add a personal caveat, if there isn’t a floor plan then the images mean little to me. I must have some level of spatial awareness to appreciate the  images.

As the architect in this situation, I think caution must be taken to always place the one person who see’s the work in person and the 10,000 who see it via photographs. While we are always concerned with the visual aesthetic, we must always make functionality for the end-user our primary concern. Not saying that visual aesthetic isn’t a great part of that, it just mustn’t inhibit the qualities that are important to a structure’s livability.

So in conclusion, Shulman is a beast. Architectural photography is great. Always design for the needs of the inhabitants, let everyone else’s affirmations be a result of having done your job right.

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About bjmcghee

Architect in training.

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