Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rest In Peace, Julius Shulman

I only recently found out that Julius Shulman died at 98 on July 15th, 2009. If you have not had the chance to do so, please read his obituary. He was to architectural photography what Annie Leibovitz is to people portraits, or what Ansel Adams is to natural photography. Shulman was a Photog, which is photographer lingo for "master of the lens." And among photogs, Shulman was a grand master, an icon, accomplished something few others can ever do: capturing the spirit of a structure in one frame. If you are an architect, or plan to be one, studying Shulman's work should be considered as important as studying Palladio, Wright, and Le Corbusier. The average layperson neither knows nor cares about golden scale, red and blue series, incolumniation, or anything of the sort. Shulman made the genius and spirit of great architecture accessible to the general public in ways that no architectural set of plans or books could ever do.

Most people don't appreciate photography anymore because when you have a digital camera and a memory card that can hold thousands of images, why bother composing? Why worry about whether you have the perfect image when you can pick the best out of 100 or 1000. Why not just use hi-def video and freeze-frame on the right moment, crop it, photoshop it, and print it? But there was a day and age when you often only had that one perfect moment in time, that would only exist for a split second before passing into regretful memory. A True Photog might wait days, months, even years for the right moment, at the right time, in the right light, weather, and conditions, to attempt to capture that moment on film. A Master Photog manages to actually accomplish this.

Shulman understood the essence of architecture in the same way that Leibovitz understood the essence of a celebrity. He understood the composition of the light, the time of day, the shadows, and textures in the same way that Adams did in nature. All three had the ability to capture the spiritual, mental, and physical essence of that moment in one perfect frame. And they did so with cameras that required manual focusing, guesswork on the proper f-stop for the lens, and rolls of film that rarely if ever exceeded 36 possible images. There was no photoshopping the final product. You had hard tangible film, and if an accident occurred during development of the negatives, that image was ruined forever. There are a number of tricks that could be performed with an enlarger, the machine that shines light through a negative onto the photo paper, but nothing on the scale of Photoshop. If an image was poor, the light not right, the shot overexposed or underexposed, there was very little one could do to improve upon the original.

This is what separated master photogs from amateurs: the ability to compose and capture the essence of a moment and place so skillfully, so expertly, with so few resources at their disposal, that they elevated photography from mere documentation to the level of art so profound it could be likened to masterworks of painters. Some might scoff at the idea of photography as an art, or if so, might begrudge it ever being equal to that of the brush and canvas, or the sculpture, but I challenge anyone to ever deny that what Shulman accomplished, over and over again, was anything short of artistic genius.

This is my very humble attempt to sketch one of his more famous photographs, Case Study House #22, in Los Angeles. It is also known as The Stahl House, and the architect is Pierre Koenig. I did not do a very good job on this sketch, but it's my own humble homage to this great man and champion of architecture. I had intended to visit Shulman after this summer semester ended, before starting the fall semester. I will now never have that chance. A hero of mine has died, after a very long, fulfilling life.

Rest in Peace, Julius Shulman, you will be dearly missed...

-Brandon Safford

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