Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman Alex Chadwick speaks with famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman, who at 95 continues to influence the way people look and think about modern architecture.
NPR logo

Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman

Architectural Photographer Julius Shulman

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Online alert! Go to our Web site. Go to right now, because this is illustrated radio, this next piece, about an almost-century-old architectural marvel here in Los Angeles. His name is Julius Shulman.

(Soundbite of phone ringing; footsteps)

Mr. JULIUS SHULMAN (Photographer): Julius Shulman. Oh, Tom. Yes.

CHADWICK: Julius Shulman is, by many accounts, the greatest living architectural photographer. Since the 1930s, he's photographed the work of virtually every modern architect. Among decades of images, one is best known, practically an icon of modernism, except perhaps to Julius Shulman. More on that image in a moment. First, though, when I visited Julius at his Los Angeles home and studio, we began by talking about photography itself.

It's not just looking; it's looking through the lens.

Mr. SHULMAN: No, it's looking through your mind, not the lens. A matter of fact, I'm glad you said that because you contradict what I tell my students. Invariably, whether I got 10 or 20 or 40 or 50 students, they all automatically bend down, pull out their camera. And I've learned to shout at them, `Wait a minute! What are you doing?' `Well, we're here to photograph.' `No, you're not here to photograph. You're here to look at a building and look into your own minds. What are you looking at? The camera has nothing to do with your photography; not yet. The photography is based on your ability to stop, view something, register in your mind what you're looking at and then you assemble these facts, these thoughts, now you reach down, take your camera, look through your viewer. So close your cases, please. Let's look at this building.'

It's part landscaping, it's people walking in and out. And I use people in my pictures all the time for that reason. They come alive, even like the picture of the girls in that two-girl photograph of Pierre Koenig's.

CHADWICK: That may be your most famous image.

Mr. SHULMAN: It is. Now it is. It represents a composition and a statement of how I observed that view of that house because I didn't start that evening with that composition.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: This is the picture I referred to earlier, and you can see it now at This famous photo, it was taken in 1960. It shows a startling modern house by architect Pierre Koenig. It's a clean-lined box of glass, juts out from the hillside, the broad expanse of nighttime Los Angeles twinkling below. Inside the house, two fashionably dressed young women seem lost in conversation. Julius likes people in his pictures, remember. These two women were girlfriends of young architects who worked with Pierre Koenig. Julius had planned to shoot interiors, but as he waited for his assistant to set the lights, he stepped outside into the warm summer night and noticed.

Mr. SHULMAN: I looked at the view from outside and the two girls were sitting in there through the glass. Immediately I said, `Wait a minute.' I called to my assistant, said, `Carlos, bring the camera out quickly. We're changing the composition.' And this has turned out to be the most widely published architectural photograph ever in the history of architecture, contemporary architecture.

CHADWICK: But why is that such a great image? Do you know? I mean, when you saw that, did you know that you would get that image from a photograph? And what is it that is so attractive and interesting and expressive about that picture?

Mr. SHULMAN: I walked outside, I saw the view, observing to my left the girls talking. This is reality because it's showing it from a third dimension. Inside, you're part of the room with the girls. Outside, I said, `Wait a minute. This is like an X-ray. I'm just an observer now. I'm watching the girls.' And maybe that's what subconsciously or otherwise may have happened, and you observe this when you asked the question: What is there about this photograph? It's how people live and react to each other. Even though there's only two girls, you can see they actually were in a conversation 'cause when I was setting up the camera out there, the girls never realized that they were going to be in the photograph. They thought I was photographing the outside of the house. They thought I was taking the camera outside to take a picture of the house.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

CHADWICK: Wow! Look at that.

Mr. SHULMAN: This is a modern house...

CHADWICK: Now Julius is leading us from his studio into his house, built in 1950, the work of architect Raphael Soriano, framed entirely of steel, the only surviving unaltered example of that architect's residential work.

Mr. SHULMAN: All glass and steel. I still have an 1872 Viennese clock from Vienna. It keeps wonderful time.


There, just inside the door, is a poster-sized reproduction of Julius' famous photograph and there just beside it a smaller version. This is a gift from a fan with a talent for model-making. It's like a 3-D shadowbox; the photo cut with an X-acto knife and rearranged in layers and with some added effects. Julius throws a switch and the globe lights inside the Koenig house actually light up.

Look at that!

Mr. SHULMAN: Look at what this fellow did. He put little tiny bulbs inside the light fixtures. It comes alive.

CHADWICK: But wait a minute. You know, are you saying that you prefer this to this? This is your most famous photograph...

Mr. SHULMAN: It is.

CHADWICK: of the great architectural photographs of the--maybe the great architectural photograph of all time. This is a model maker's...

Mr. SHULMAN: Interpretation.

CHADWICK: ...interpretation.

Mr. SHULMAN: But I admire him. I admire his ability.

CHADWICK: But are you saying that there's something you like more about this model?

Mr. SHULMAN: It's a realism that he captured with his lighting. See the shadow?


Mr. SHULMAN: That's are--those are my lights, but he's enhanced my lighting with his own interpretation. Is that right?

CHADWICK: I--Julius, you're the master. This is your great work here. This is a trick that he's done with your work. It's not more real. It's less real, isn't it?

Mr. SHULMAN: No, it's real.

CHADWICK: Well, see for yourself. I took a picture of the model. It's at that Web site,, along with the original photograph, and another image of Julius holding what I suspect is actually his favorite picture. The Getty Museum has acquired much of his work. An exhibition of some of it is on display at the Getty here in Los Angeles through next month. And Julius Shulman, despite his many years, is still adding more. He still shoots professionally and takes assignments all over the world.

How old are you now?

Mr. SHULMAN: Ninety-five.

CHADWICK: If you don't mind my asking.

Mr. SHULMAN: Yeah, I love it.

CHADWICK: And you still have assignments?

Mr. SHULMAN: Oh, yes. Continuously.

CHADWICK: And you have to travel for them?

Mr. SHULMAN: Well, I was in Drexel University in Philadelphia last week. A matter of fact, I came home from Frankfurt, stayed overnight, the next morning--it was 7:00 in the morning, I was on a plane to go to the Drexel at Philadelphia. I came home Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon, I had an assignment here and then I went to work again. God is good to me. I'm happy.

CHADWICK: Photographer Julius Shulman at age 95. To learn more about him, stop by our Web site, Don't forget.

DAY TO DAY continues in a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.