Through Julius Shulman’s Eyes

by Jacqueline Bull November 5, 2019


1753-15-shulman-portrait_didactic_panel_cliff-may-house-west-covina1Curator Keith York knew renowned photographer Julius Shulman in the early 2000’s. Keith went through his archive, thumbing through hand-written index cards in his home studio office. He was trying to see all that he had photographed of San Diego. Even having spent this personal time with Julius, in his home, Keith York couldn’t confidently tell me much about who Julius, the man, was.

A quick sojourn into Google or Wikipedia could tell you that he lived from 1910-2009, had two long marriages that left him a widower twice, one daughter, and if you scroll all the way to the bottom of the Wikipedia article to the categories section, among “20th century American photographers” and “Artists from Los Angeles,” you will find the tag “American Jews.”

“It was never about him until the very end when he was talking about his photography. I think even then when people would ask personal questions, it was about the work. I’m sure there is some story there. I’m sure there was some heartbreak and tragedy and love and joy as we all enjoy. It was starkly removed from his public comments. I spent a lot of time with him … I saw little bits of humanity or how you might get intimate with a friend, but 99% of it was ‘When I was there and the architect hired me and I took that photo.’… Most people have focused on his work [rather] than him,” Keith said.

And the body of work is massive. The Getty Research Institute has an archive that contains over “260,000 vintage and modern prints, negatives, and transparencies.”

“He documented the rise of U.S. architecture after WWII which is a pretty amazing change from what was being built prior to the war,” Keith said.

About 5000 of Julius’s images are of San Diego.

“No one has been able to tell this story about San Diego-world famous guy, cool photographs, cool looking buildings–why has no one told this story before? I feel giddy that I’m like I get to be the guy that’s like ‘Look at this stuff! It’s so cool!’” Keith said.

Keith York is passionate about architecture, but he is first and foremost a storyteller. He is a native San Diegan and these 20th century photos of the city help reconnect him to his home in the past and present.

“To have access to this archive to share means that I can tell stories. I can tell the story about how the stadium doesn’t look that way anymore, Anthony’s got demolished … I can start telling the stories,” he said.

And with this archive, he curated the exhibit that is now on display at the San Diego Central Library “Julius Shulman: Modern San Diego.”

The exhibit is laid out mostly in groupings of geography. (“Part of the curatorial process is making connections for people.”) Walking through the exhibit, Keith is able to tell the story of each piece and also the exact cross street for each building and whether it still exists in that form and what else is near it.

You get a sense of the history of the architecture of San Diego and the history of the city as well. It is really striking to see photos of recreation-focused resorts that once dotted the Mission Bay shore or how the Cortez Hill in its lifetime had add-ons to its structure and an outdoor glass elevator. The more you know about the city, the more the images can ground you in memory.

“My hope–why I’m even doing this–is when I see a building, I have an emotional response to ‘Wow, that is really amazing’ or ‘Ooh, that is really ugly’ or ’Ooh, that is too big for it’s lot.’ Most of us, myself included, you just drive by stuff and you don’t even think about it. Especially when you see it framed from a photographer’s lens, right? You see it differently,” he said.

“I think looking at San Diego through a mid century modern architecture lens … People don’t expect it, but when you look at the depth and breadth of it it’s like ‘There is a lot going on here,’ which is my hope. My hope is to educate people that this body of work is important to the city even if people don’t recognize it.”

During his career, Julius was widely published in a variety of different magazines, some architecture-focused, some not, but Keith speculates that the epiphany of the value of the totality of the work wouldn’t hit him until much later.

“As he went into retirement, he was retiring as a fairly successful architectural photographer, and raised a family and built a house–he had a good life. As people like me descended upon him that it really clicked in him ‘Oh my G-d, I think I just documented post-war Southern California,’ and that body of work tells its own story, even if it wasn’t his photographs.”

Keith recalls asking Julius about the conversation between architecture in Palm Springs, LA and San Diego. Julius commented that San Diego had more unknown jewels and of the people that were wanting to learn from or use his archive, Keith was the only one asking about his San Diego photos.

“He thought very highly of what I was hoping to embark upon. Certainly part of doing this is in his memory. It means everything to be able to share with you that I spent time with him before he died. He was a really neat, wonderful, talented person and we should all be lucky to spend a little bit of our lives with people that just sitting with them you are like: ‘Tell me anything. I don’t care. What you had for lunch is interesting.’ Just being there and he’s like ‘I knew so-and-so and I was here for this and I saw that and I heard that and I was there when this happened.’ He was just like a walking oral history,” Keith said.

Keith added that Julius was in his 90s when they met, and while he enjoyed their time together, he didn’t feel like it was fair to assess who Julius was in his life from only knowing him in that stage.

He recalls seeing a menorah in his house and that there were “pieces” of his Jewish identity that were visible. The great irony being that he was being paid to photograph houses that he would have been barred from owning. In certain neighborhoods, anti-Semitic housing policies were in effect during much of his career.

“I’m always haunted by La Jolla’s real estate practice’s past. It’s terrible … If you were African American or Jewish, up until I would say the mid 60s, it was difficult for you to operate your life normally in the greater La Jolla area.”

Knowing that legacy is important to him. And with or without irony–depending on the knowledge of the attendee–the La Jolla Historical Society has their own show running concurrently (also working with Keith) of Julius’s La Jolla photos.

For the San Diego exhibit in the library, “My hope would be that everyone walks away going ‘I had no idea that was in San Diego.’ This guy–I can’t even say it keeping a straight face–he is crazy famous in this space … And they walk out going ‘San Diego is richer than I thought it was’ And someone takes it and mines it further than I have.”

“I hope this is a tip of an iceberg.”


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