Don’t I wish! The architectural photographer in fact probably did more to promote and then to revive modern architecture than anyone after it was briefly sidetracked by postmodernism. Above is perhaps Shulman’s most iconic photograph, of the Stahl House overlooking Los Angeles. But it is also one of the very few photographs of houses by Shulman that contain people.
Last night I watched the film Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, and it may come as close as anything has to shaking my animus against modern architecture. His photos are truly glorious and they do make many modernist houses and buildings look beautiful. But the film is brutally honest – unconsciously so, it seems to me – about the hard work of making photographs that distill the essence of modernist “masterpieces.”
Shulman made a point of abstracting the subjects of his photographs. His photos were shot in black and white because it favored abstraction. He was a master of composition, catching the purity of line to perfection, producing shots that caused the house, inside or out, either to recede to a point of infinity or to jump out at you from the photograph. Both techniques captured a sort of beauty that omitted the fact of the house itself. Shulman made sure the windows were clean clean clean and that the furniture and accoutrements of living were just so – which is to say, as they would never be during their operation as “machines for living.” My guess: Most of these houses were not machines for living but machines for partying. To host a fabulous cocktail party was the true goal of the generally wealthy people who had these houses built.
Although no figures were stated in the film, the Stahl House was built on land purchased for $13,500. In one scene, either Shulman or someone else says the seller of the land probably chortled at having fobbed it off on some rube for more than it was worth. A property on a ledge overlooking Los Angeles? I doubt it. Even if the land was sold cheap to a couple without wealth, the Stahl House is the exception that proves the rule. The houses photographed by Stahl are mostly houses that are abstracted from the life of their cities, set in splendid isolation even if lofted above, like the Stahl house, for all to see.
Still, it’s a fascinating movie filled with warnings about the power of savvy promotion to thrust a dubious product down the gullets of that most gullible class: the wealthy.