Photographer Captures L.A.'s Vintage Homes The pictures by the 98-year-old architectural photographer Julius Shulman are in a league of their own, so distinctive that they are consulted by movie designers, collected by museums and cherished by homeowners who commission them.
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Photographer Captures L.A.'s Vintage Homes

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Photographer Captures L.A.'s Vintage Homes

Photographer Captures L.A.'s Vintage Homes

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Magazines, newspapers, family scrapbooks - they're full of photographs of houses, visual examples of the American dream. The pictures by a 98-year-old architectural photographer named Julius Shulman are in a league of their own. His photographs are so distinctive, they're consulted by movie designers, collected by museums and cherished by homeowners who commission them. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg explains.

(Soundbite of movie, "Iron Man")

Mr. PAUL BETTANY (Actor): (as Jarvis) Good morning. It's 7:00 AM. The weather in Malibu is 72 degrees, with scattered clouds.

STAMBERG: The hero of the movie "Iron Man" lives in a super sleek talking house high atop a California hillside.

(Soundbite of movie, "Iron Man")

Mr. BETTANY: (as Jarvis) Surf conditions are fair, with waist to shoulder…

STAMBERG: The house was inspired by photographs Julius Shulman took in the 1950s and '60s. Books of these photos line the workspace of "Iron Man" production designer J. Michael Riva, a big Shulman fan.

Mr. J. MICHAEL RIVA (Production Designer): You have to reference him when you're doing what we do, because he's the only one who really cataloged all this, some of these extraordinary buildings. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be able to see them.

Unidentified Woman: You are approaching your destination.

STAMBERG: Julius Shulman also lives high atop a California hillside, off Mulholland Drive.

Unidentified Woman: You have arrived. Your destination is to the right.

STAMBERG: Shulman's house looks a bit like some he's photographed. He built it in the 1950s. It's clean, modern and busy.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. JULIUS SHULMAN (Photographer): Hello. Julius Shulman. Hey, what are you doing?

STAMBERG: He gets calls from magazine editors, architects, photography students, acolytes, sometimes Wim de Wit phones. Mr. de Wit is the head of Architecture and Design at the Getty Research Institute. In 2004, the Getty bought Shulman's archives, some quarter of a million images documenting more than 70 years of California architecture.

Mr. WIM de WIT (Head of Architecture and Design, Getty Research Institute): The famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler had already been building in this part of the world for quite some time. But after the Second World War, there was a whole new generation of architects who became known thanks to his work.

STAMBERG: Julius Shulman has taken thousands of photographs, but you'd better not ask him about going on a shoot.

Mr. SHULMAN: Shoot? Look at me. Do I have a gun? I'm a photographer.

STAMBERG: Indeed, he is, of houses, mostly - mostly in southern California. Sometimes there are people in the pictures, but Shulman's focus is on the building and how it sits in its environment, the feeling it evokes. The photograph he's most famous for was taken in 1960.

Mr. SHULMAN: One of my best pictures I've ever had. That's wonderful.

STAMBERG: A house in the Hollywood Hills, one of several affordable single-family homes, an Architecture Magazine commission after World War II. This one is called "Case Study House Number 22," designed by Pierre Koenig. Shulman's photo - you can see it at - shows the corner of the living room, glass-walled, suspended from the edge of a cliff, just hanging in space over the twinkling lights of a Los Angeles dusk.

Mr. SHULMAN: We were photographing the interior of this house.

STAMBERG: Two attractive women in white dresses - they were architects' girlfriends - sit on 1950s modern furniture, looking ready for cocktails. You can almost hear Sinatra on the photograph and taste the martinis.

(Soundbite of song, "Summer Wind")

Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer): (Singing) The summer wind came blowing in from across the sea.

STAMBERG: Searching for the best angle, Julius Shulman walks outside and looks back at the house.

Mr. SHULMAN: And I said, wait a minute. This is better. Look at the line, look at the perspective, the cantilever. It all comes together. So I called to my assistants and told the fellas to a bring camera and to reset the lights because we're going to make a different composition.

STAMBERG: He took one photograph, black and white.

Mr. SHULMAN: And it turned out to be the most iconic architectural photograph ever taken in the history of architecture.

STAMBERG: It's the Los Angeles of our dreams - the glittering, slightly scary, edge-of-the-continent feel of the future captured on film - iconic. In LA Magazine, Mary Melton writes that photographer Julius Shulman gave Los Angeles its best self, and then exported its mythology to the world.

(Soundbite of song, "Summer Wind")

Mr. SINATRA: (Singing) It lingered there, to touch your hair and walk with me.

STAMBERG: For $6,000 and more, you can commission Julius Shulman to photograph your home. Steven Spielberg did. So did director Robert Zemeckis. So did my friend, Shondell Spiegel.

She lives in Hancock Park, a lovely old neighborhood just south of Hollywood. Shulman and his partner, Juergen Nogai, came to her house one morning to take pictures.

Ms. SHONDELL SPIEGEL: I had set up just some coffee and some fruit to have while we sat down, and his assistants got things ready. And he said we're going to start in here. And I started to clear the table, and he said, oh, no. Oh, no.

STAMBERG: Shulman started rearranging the leftovers. He says it's all spur of the moment, spontaneous with him. He doesn't do a lot of staging, but there are some tweaks.

Mr. SHULMAN: I dress the set.

Ms. SPIEGEL: He said, bring me three knives. Bring me three forks. Bring me three cups.

STAMBERG: And suddenly, he'd created a tablescape that echoed the archway and colors of Shondell's breakfast room.

Ms. SPIEGEL: He arrived at 9:30, and he left at 6:00, and he had 11 shots -excuse me, 11 images of the house.

STAMBERG: And in a few weeks, Shondell Spiegel had her Shulman photographs. But she says she had a lot more than that in the house she'd lived in for 34 years.

Ms. SPIEGEL: He makes you see what you take for granted. And we do that in our houses. We do that in our marriages. We do that with our children. And he has the ability to stop time and to let you see it and to remember why you fell in love with it.

STAMBERG: Whether it's a home in Hancock Park or the Department of Water and Power in downtown L.A. or a gas station in Anaheim, the camera of photographer Julius Shulman discovers the indelible image, the picture that documents not just a place and a time, but an essence.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Summer Wind")

MONTAGNE: Get a look at some of the photographs and read about how Shulman and Nogai capture images at It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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