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


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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