Los Angeles

Julius Shulman

In the crystalline Modernist fantasy that is Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles, all is gleaming right angles or burnished curves. Presenting an architectural portrait of rigorous purity and refined order, with form obediently following function, Shulman’s photographs of commercial buildings and houses from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s are high-Modernist foils to Jean Baudrillard’s phantasmagoric vision of Los Angeles. In Shulman’s Los Angeles, the limpid, bright atmosphere reveals serene domestic spaces and chimerical vistas of an untroubled urban expanse.

Shulman, who has been taking photographs professionally since the ’30s, is one of the better known architectural photographers, a man whom Modernist architects such as Richard Neutra adored for his ability to subordinate any decorative or narrative impulse of his own to the dramatic, self-involved technics of their glass and steel structures. With their insistently perfect focus, exquisite detail, and rigorous balance, his images are brilliantly in tune with the muscular rigidity and suppressed exuberance of Modernist architecture. Shulman has an uncanny ability to translate the dramatic three-dimensionality of the fabulous domestic architecture of ’50s Los Angeles into the duplicitous flatness of the photograph: thrusting, cantilevered roofs, suspended panes of liquid glass, and the spare but lively interiors bleeding into the texture of the city beyond are all compressed into the lusciously evocative surface of the picture.

This selection of Shulman photographs includes the famous inside/outside view right through the glass-paned skin of Pierre Koenig’s fantastic Case Study House #22, 1960. The photograph is, like the building itself, a concise summation of the Southern Californian dream of visually, if not spatially, merging the clean, Scandinavian-furnished interior of the home with the vast spread of lights that define the mythical harmony of ’50s Los Angeles.

In all of Shulman’s houses and buildings—self-satisfied in their deco modishness or Le Corbusian rigor—if any people are present at all they are likely to be female and white. Posing rigidly like Barbie dolls, these Vanna Whites are perfectly groomed, squeaky clean accessories to their meticulously appointed homes. Not a single person of color can be found in this frozen city of (Anglo) dreams, this architectural utopia.

Aside from such classic images of Modernist houses, a number of other lesser-known but magnificent pictures were on view. Several attempts at precisionist pictures of industrial forms (with two especially arresting images of the Boulder Dam) showed Shulman reaching into a more clearly “esthetic” realm of practice (making the shift from commissioned, architectural photographs into the high-priced zone of the “high art” print seem slightly less mercenary). A group of images of ’30s and ’40s movie palaces—showing the weirdly empty, rhythmic rows of seats and overwrought prosceniums inside, or the theatrical moderne exteriors, complete with campy spires and swirling awnings flaunting their nonfunctionality to the passerby—present a hauntingly disembodied response to the cliched notion of L.A. as the city of celluloid dreams.

The esthetic of these deco palaces contrasts strongly with the restrained opulence of the ’50s modern houses, but both confirm the American/Hollywood dream of a uniformly content middle class. The limited vision presented in Shulman’s gorgeous photographs, where anesthetized modern spaces are peopled with doll-like white bodies, inadvertently exposes the radical limitations of the Modernist dream.

Amelia Jones