JUST INSIDE THE ENTRANCE to the current LACMA exhibition “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way,” are two modest vintage aerial photographs. Both depict the section of Wilshire Blvd that the museum itself occupies today, and the horizon stretching to the west beyond. Black and white, and yellowing, they’re plain enough to almost disappear, especially because they are installed next to a glimmering restored Airstream trailer. Juxtaposed, what is compelling about the photographs is their discrepancy. In the first image, taken in 1922, there are only a handful of buildings visible, mostly cabins and sheds on a vast open plain. But in the second image, taken just seven years later, the entire landscape is filled with residences, cars and paved sidestreets. As a preamble to the exhibition, the conspicuous contrast between the two images is clearly meant to suggest that the California design boom of the 30s and 40s was demand driven. Houses had been built, and people needed to furnish them. The pictures drive home the breakneck pace of 1920s real estate development with a quiddity that mere statistics might never furnish. A photograph can force one to adjust one’s view, one’s image of history in ways that no written paragraph can.
But the purely factographic aspect of a photograph can never be all, especially in an art museum. How could we begin to talk about what these images mean as pictures, as art? (The curators duck this question. Notably, the wall text credits the images to Spence Air Photos, not the photographer Robert Spence who took them.) Personally, I find myself drawn to the earlier image. The pleasure lies partly in how thinly painted the strokes of civilization are, in the romance of wild, barbaric nineteenth century Los Angeles. Both the image and its subject are primitive, tentative. In an art culture that has thoroughly embraced topographical photography as both a strategy and a historical precedent within neo-conceptual art, the buckeye ruggedness of the two prints is strangely alluring. There are, of course, many images like Spence’s in local photographic archives (the public library’s online photo archive is especially strong) though perhaps not as many as one might expect. This kind of image is attractive partly because it is crude by today’s standards, but its aesthetic appeal is ultimately inseparable from the larger narrative that encompasses the growth of cities in the West, and one’s own personal gut intuitions about society, nature, urban living, and the idea of progress.
Across the way in the same exhibition, a spread from a 1949 issue of Life Magazine gets a slightly different treatment. Unlike Robert Spence, photographer Julius Shulman is identified by his name, not the name of his company. The image in the magazine is Shulman’s iconic view of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs. As has been documented in a steady stream of books, Shulman actively constructed his architectural photographs, furnishing foregrounds with trees and shrubs, and decorating interiors with chairs, tables, vases, and rugs, often from his own personal collection. As a designer (which he never would have called himself), he had a knack for using decor to soften the aridity of high modernism, making it accessible to mainstream tastes without disrupting its essentialist forms. His most famous photographs have been used not just as reference material for restoration projects, but as templates for an entire lifestyle conception whose legacy can be seen in hotels, books, magazines, film and television, all over the world. Just as Spence’s photographs create trouble for any simplistic understanding of photography as being purely documentary, the case of Shulman provides an object lesson in the social transformation of commercial photography into art, a transformation that is still underway.
The core metaphor of Shulman’s most famous photographs, like Case Study House #22, 1960 is that of transparency. The glass walls of the house allow the viewer’s gaze to penetrate not just into the house, but beyond it, towards an infinite horizon. Through the use of long exposure times, Shulman brought the interior lighting of a building and the exterior lighting of its environment into equilibrium. As a working commercial artist, he created a photographic counterpart to the indoor/outdoor conception of living promulgated by California modernist architecture. In the classic Shulman images, nature and culture, outside and inside, coexist as perfect complements. In his fantasy of frontiersmanship there aren’t any neighbors, and if there are they occupy a distant horizon. It’s a wildly compelling vision, one in which the public modernism of Mies van der Rohe is reborn as a private affair. Architecture becomes a vehicle not to remake society, but to safely cocoon within it.
Shulman’s production, however, was much more expansive than his residential modernist architecture work alone might let on. Last year, Rizzoli published the coffee table book Julius Shulman Los Angeles: The Birth of a Modern Metropolis, which documents an astonishing variety of commercial commissions in and around the city. Some of the earliest images strike a chord similar to that of the Spence aerial photo. In one photograph, hunched laborers till the pristine soil of a rancho, flanked by golden hills. In another image, a subdivision is sketched out, and the first houses are framed in what had long been farmland. What’s most shocking about these pictures is the dates. Who knew that Canoga Park in 1966 was so bucolic?
The main thrust of the Rizzoli book, however, is the city proper, which Shulman roved compulsively throughout his long career, both on commercial assignments and in his free time. The book is a major revelation, and a welcome corrective to a viewpoint that would restrict Shulman’s practice to the gilded ghetto of architectural photography. Shulman caught many parts of L.A. and its environs at the visual tipping point of transformation. To flip through this book is to survey the development of the city’s surround from rural rustic rancho to sprawling suburban subdivision, never to return. Roughly half of the material is what today would be termed industrial photography. These were what Shulman called his “bread and butter” commissions by banks, corporations, hospitals and factories for imagery to illustrate brochures, reports, manuals, and advertising.
The span of the work is boggling. Shulman seems to have explored virtually every permutation of the urban landscape genre in one fashion or another. He had a special affinity for the building process itself, often visiting construction sites to photograph them. There are also a number of finely wrought photographs of “ready to move in” residential 1960s interiors that beckon the viewer to imagine ambulating through them. The photographs are, among other things, vital historical documents from an era before the advent of the “pro-sumer” photographer, when technically high-quality photography was still the province of a highly specialized trade.
Shulman pulls no punches. When he is on, it is at full throttle, with no patience for nuance, and even the details of an image come across loudly, in a stage whisper. The overall tone of the work is insistently, almost maddeningly boosterist. “Optimism” is the watchword that critics have returned to again and again, with good reason. In the Eisenhower-era photographs in the book, California promises an endless summer of wealth, beauty, and mobility, abetted by technology, a season of seemingly unfettered potential and limitless enchantment. The main motif is that of construction, of constructing. The individual photographs are almost always interested in the thing itself, not in any play of juxtapositions. When Shulman does engage multiple subjects within a single picture, it is usually within a simplified architectural conception of “site,” one which more often that not is simply a hilltop with a boffo view. Even if the photographs are not precisely in keeping with contemporary tastes — in as much as they do not emphasize sculptural tactility, the sexual, the perverse, the abject, the ironic, ethnic identity, minority politics, grandiose effects of scale etc. — they encapsulate the outlook of their era majestically, as surely as any Abstract Expressionist or Color Field painting.
What is striking about these photographs today is what is missing from them. There’s no pollution, no traffic, no ugliness, no ethnic tension, no decay — in short, not a shred of anxiety, not a trace of the Germanic dread of Joan Didion, or even the soul-searching of John Steinbeck. Everything is as it looks: we know that the Ryerson Steel Company makes steel because that’s what it says in big letters on the wall outside the plant. Like so much of mainstream 50s culture, the images have a clarity and simplicity bordering on naïveté that we might associate with the imputed lightheartedness of a vintage educational film. In this respect, the resoluteness of their enchantment can be difficult to access now, and the less successful pictures are arguably more interesting as history than as art. In one image, a woman operates the nozzle on a gleaming chromed boiler. A cross between Rosie the Riveter and Lucille Ball, her perkiness is totally plausible, but almost irritating. A caption in the book reminds us that “Caucasian women were a common sight in the factories of the time.”
Portraiture was not Shulman’s strong suit. Oftentimes the people in his photographs are posed in an awkward, mannered fashion. In many of his interior photographs, attractive young women are arranged on furniture like so many throw pillows, to vaguely humorous effect. In a particularly stilted image, a boy and girl on horseback stare determinedly to one side, wearing fake smiles. The horses seem more present than the people, and a misbehaving dog staring straight at the camera is the main sign of life. For a modern audience that is accustomed to engaging with the theatricality of a staged photograph, the artificiality of the posturing in much of Shulman’s imagery has its own strange expressivity, rooted in the 1950s cult of domesticity.
Shulman was a strongly graphic artist, in the best and worst sense of the term. His scope, his confidence, and his technique still have the power to overwhelm. If, as so often happens with highly graphic work, this response can be difficult to sustain, the initial excitement is so strong that, even when it fades, the residue remains worthwhile. The tools of his conception were the working tools of a commercial art: a rugged, emphatic single point perspective, with the vanishing point located well within the boundaries of the image. The perspectival scheme always hits you immediately, like a pie in the face. Shapes are delineated with a geometric clarity. In their reductive simplicity, some photos approach the pellucidity of a mechanical pencil drawing. But Shulman also called attention to the photographic in various ways. One of his favorite devices is a pronounced vignetting in the upper corners of the image (technically caused by shifting the rear standard of a view camera up vertically, so that the image circle projected by the lens does not fully cover the film). The effect is stylish, and the darkness creates a visual drama in the sky that serves to emphasize the visual center of the picture.
Inevitably these photographs raise the question of time. Most of the work in this book has not been seen in half a century. They were culled by the authors, Sam Lubell and Douglass Woods, from the higher-numbered boxes of the Shulman archives, which were acquired by the Getty Research Institute towards the end of Shulman’s life. (Lubell and Woods originally set out to do another book of interiors, but stumbled into the idea of a Los Angeles-themed book while browsing the massive archives.) The Getty mounted a small show in 2006 that included a handful of these images, but the last time most of them were seen publicly was in reproduction in some advertisement, brochure, annual report, or catalog, shortly after they had been made, most likely with a commercial caption far different from the short descriptive captions of Lubell and Woods. Their belated and posthumous re-entry into the cultural sphere in the form of a $60 coffee table book (and exhibition prints followed closely behind) should prompt a certain amount of reflection. It is not so much Shulman’s intentions that are at issue, because Shulman clearly anticipated the reconsideration of his work after his death. (He was a meticulous archivist; when his archive was acquired by the Getty he insisted that his personal filing system be maintained intact, as a record of his work.) Rather, what is at issue is the nature of our own viewership, our experience of art, and our own relationship to history.
Shulman’s sixty-plus year career spanned not just the growth of the city, but also the institutionalization of photography within art culture. When he started work (and even as late as 1960), a major art photograph could be had for as little as $100. Today, it is not unheard of for artists just a few years out of graduate school to have a print sold at auction at the six-figure mark. The banal question of whether or not a photograph today is in fact valuable as a work of art, now determined by a collusion between the marketplace and the museum, was once not so easily settled. Viewers in the 1950s were prepared to accept the formal and aesthetic complexities of photography, but its moment of recognition as art as such, had not yet occurred.
Shulman did exhibit as a gallery artist, but he entered the art world belatedly, at the invitation of gallerist Craig Krull in 1991. Throughout his later years, he worked with a lab in Hollywood to produce exhibition prints of his earlier work. Like the painter and photographer Charles Sheeler before him (another poet of industrial expansion), Shulman celebrated the possibilities of work, of harnessing and controlling the natural world for human benefit. But, unlike Sheeler, he seems to have been temperamentally disinclined towards art as such. He had no patience for what he called “academic mumbo-jumbo,” and he seems not to have pursued an art career in any determined fashion.
But all material culture, sooner or later, becomes art. Nineteenth century photographs made for the most mercenary of purposes have now taken their place quite comfortably within the museum, despite academic protests. Shulman’s work will almost certainly follow the same pattern. It’s only a question of time. The main obstacle is that Shulman has thus far been left out of art history proper because the forces that drew photography into the mainstream of artmaking in the late 1960s emerged partly as a reaction and in opposition to the serene, professionalized, purely factographic approach to the medium that Shulman represents. Most famously, the well known group of books produced by Ed Ruscha between 1963 and 1970 staked their perverse claim to criticality through a satire of 50s commercial photography. In these works, like Every Building on the Sunset Strip, a fold-out panorama that depicts precisely what it promises on the cover, Ruscha took on the substance and style of what might pass for a commission from the local chamber of commerce, but ironized both into a state of ruin. As the artist Jeff Wall has observed in his essay Marks of Indifference (1995), Ruscha’s books declare their alienation from 50s ideals both in their subject matter (gas stations, parking lots) and in their form, in which Ruscha as author/editor impersonates a creator who is amateurish to the point of idiocy. In publishing the books, Ruscha established a secondary fictional author that is, as Wall puts it, “an asocial cipher who cannot connect with others around him, an abstraction, a phantom conjured up by the construction, the structure of the product said to be by his hand.” According to this textbook view, by calling attention to the semi-fictional status of the author, the work of Ruscha and others ultimately helped to open the path to a reorientation of photography and photographic discourse around concerns of language, performance, and identity.
Because the history of art photography after late 60s conceptualism has long been written in this fashion — as a critical reaction to institutionalized commercial photographic forms — the commercial work of artists like Shulman may prove slow to rehabilitate, in spite of its authentic expressivity. Indeed, 50s commercial art has long been the whipping boy for many local artists. Ruscha, Jim Shaw, and William Leavitt have been returning to this type of material for decades for the purpose of ironizing it in the medium of painting. The mockery of 50s suburbia, which was recognized as a cliché even in its own time, is now so familiar that it is almost more generic than its source material. But even for those who subscribe utterly to the pseudo-institutional viewpoint, which accepts photography as art primarily as a historic consequence of its role within 60s conceptualism, Shulman’s Los Angeles photographs may prove irresistible simply because they contextualize subsequent, already familiar work so well. In particular, the work of Ruscha, who received a traditional 50s commercial art training, can be seen productively in the context of Shulman’s photographs. Shulman’s Mobil Gas Station, Smith and Williams, Anaheim (1956), a stunning dead-on frontal view of its subject, cannot help but evoke Ruscha’s many gas stations, which it historically precedes. And Shulman’s Ramo Wooldridge Corporation, Chatsworth (1959), which depicts a massive newly built factory perched at what looks like the edge of civilization, looks like nothing so much as one of the faceless factories from Ruscha’s 1992 series of paintings titled Blue Collar. If anything the earlier photos, in all of their problematic realism, and anonymous at their conception, are (as so often happens) even more interesting than the paintings they appear to have indirectly inspired.