Pieter van der Lugt

Freelance writer

Julius Shulman

Modernism in Pictures

Photographer Julius Shulman

Do an image search for modernist houses and chances are the most striking photographs that come up will be the work of one man. Julius Shulman is regarded as the most important of all architectural photographers. His most famous works might be as familiar as any iconic art of the previous century.

Perhaps his best-known is a 1960 photograph of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 in Los Angeles. It's not just a perfect shot of an incredible house but a cultural time capsule. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger described it as “one of those singular images that sum up an entire city at a moment in time”.

Shulman took his pictures to spread the word about new and innovative architects. One shot printed in an architecture journal could kick-start a brilliant career. Sadly, some of his pictures are also the last records of great designs that were torn down or destroyed.

He had Russian Jewish roots and was born in Brooklyn in 1910. The family lived on a farm for a while where he said he got his appreciation of light and shadow, a key element in his work. He studied various subjects after school, unsure what to do until he met architect Richard Neutra by chance in 1936. He was invited to go see one of Neutra's houses and took along his pocket camera. “I had never seen a modern house before,” Shulman said. “It intrigued me with its strange forms – beyond any previous identity of a house in my experience.”

Shulman sent his pictures of the house to the architect, who ordered prints and asked him to photograph more houses. A legend was born – a genius who never used a light metre and often took only one shot.

Purists complain sometimes about Shulman staging his compositions. He would bring in furniture and props and even pose models or shoot through branches or potted plants to make a new house look like it was landscaped already. Shulman said he wasn't just taking pictures, he was “selling modernism”. To him modernism wasn't just a building style: it came with a philosophy which matched his own.

Gallery owner Craig Krull explained: “Modernism is characterised by an optimistic spirit, a belief that the future holds great promise and technology will improve civilisation. Julius was perfectly suited to translate the tenets of optimism.”

Shulman died in 2009 not long after his works were moved to the archives of the Getty Research Institute and a wonderful documentary about his life was completed. Visual Acoustics shows him revisiting classic buildings by just about every modern architect working in America since the 1930s, including Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, Charles Eames and Frank Gehry.

Whether watching him in this film or looking at his work, Shulman is an inspiration, a reminder that it is fair to be optimistic about the future of humanity and not unrealistic to believe that we can build a better world.

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About me

BIO AND PORTFOLIO

Freelance writer Pieter van der Lugt Journalism, creative writing, corporate content, copy editing, translation – whenever I work with words, the job is done only when it communicates well. No matter how weighty the subject, I believe you can always keep it simple and concise. If a reader doesn't scroll down or turn the page, an opportunity has been lost.

I've written anything from scripts for corporate information videos to web posts on topics such as health and entertainment. I've had two books of jokes for children published, and translate National Geographic KiDS every month. In writing and copy editing, in English or Afrikaans, my ultimate goal is to make content easy to understand and a pleasure to read.

Contact me for original copy, or let me edit your material until it shines.

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What they wanted for supper

THOUGHTS

My wife mailed me a link to a recipe with the message “Hmm … Can we have this for supper?” It seemed simple enough - a pasta bake with mince and béchamel sauce. I jumped in the car to go buy ingredients.

A pet hate of mine is recipes calling for seasonings you'll never use again. Wasteful. I imagined my wife saying “just follow the recipe,” ignored the voice and decided not to get the two Certain Brand spice mixes. Texan Barbeque rub, in you go. Do your best.

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The mysteries of Andrea Camilleri

BOOKS AND WRITING

Take a slice of fresh farm bread, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt and ground pepper. Go outside, sit against the side of a house and take a bite. Savour it. A crime story by Andrea Camilleri is a simple, sensational pleasure much like that.

His beloved Sicilian detective, Salvo Montalbano, is a food lover who will dodge appointments and turn off on dusty roads to try a good restaurant. When a storm keeps the fishing fleet stranded in the harbour, he despairs at the prospect of eating something from the freezer.

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Toshiko Akiyoshi (piano)

JAZZ

First woman to win best arranger and composer in a Down Beat readers poll, 14 Grammy nominations, honorary doctorates... Toshiko Akiyoshi is right up there with the greats of jazz. If only it was easier to get hold of her best music.

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The exotic touch of Robert Drasnin

MUSIC

One track is enough to convert you to the music of Robert Drasnin. It is “Chant of the Moon”, the opener on his classic album Voodoo. Just over two minutes long, it has everything that defines exotica. Delicate bongos set the scene, a triangle comes in and then wordless, dreamy vocals carry the tune – the perfect start to one of the style’s best-loved albums.

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A funky fantasy

FILM

The Japanese cult classic Funky Forest is as fresh and entertaining today as when it came out in 2006. Created by director Katsuhito Ishii with filmmakers Shinichiro Miki and Hajime Ishimine, it's a colourful mix of lengthy and brief scenes, hung on a loose storyline that gives you just enough to make sense of what's going on.

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