November 4, 2009

The Road to Palm Springs, Part Two: Finding Shulman

Alexander Steel House, blt. 1961, by Donald Wexler (click all photos to enlarge)

There's a movie making the rounds on the independent film circuit called Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. I haven't seen it yet -- it shows around the country in week-long engagements -- but whenever I follow its progress, I can't help but think back to a Southern California road trip last July. While scouting out ideas for a new book, I ended up in Palm Springs for a night and had an encounter with Julius Shulman . . . even though I never met the man.

One of the leading architectural photographers of the 20th century, Shulman and his pictures played a major role in crafting the image of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, and the “Southern California lifestyle” to America and the world during the 1950s and 1960s. Until this spring, I barely knew Shulman's name and recognized only a few of his landmark images. That all changed thanks to an NPR story that opened my eyes to the "modernism" movement and his incredible body of work.

So when I made a unexpected detour into Palm Springs and visited the Orbit In (see last post), Shulman was on my mind. I was hunting for the mid-century modernist architecture that he helped make famous, and I quickly learned that Palm Springs is Nirvana for modernism fans. The visitor center resulted in some great tips and a $5 map of the city's restored homes, motels and other architectural gems. Was that $5 well spent! I made my way to historic steel structures designed by Albert Frey, William Krisel, John Lautner, Richard Neutra and other giants of the time.

Grace Miller House, blt. 1937, by Richard Neutra

That evening, after dinner, I walked along the city's own "Walk of Fame" -- and the first Hollywood-style star I found bore the name Julius Shulman. I stayed there for a few moments, appreciating the serendipity of finding this roadside legacy. Then I moved on, ready to escape the hot summer night.

Shulman's star on the Walk of Fame, Palm Canyon Drive

Waking early, I spent the morning capturing more Desert Modernism landmarks; eventually I ended up back at the city's distinctive visitor center (the former 1965 Tramway Gas Station). During a nice conversation with a book buyer regarding Route 66 Railway, I mentioned Shulman and how he and the city had inspired me on this journey. His face suddenly changed.

"You do know that he died last night?"

"Who?" I replied, in denial.


At 98 years of living the fullest life imaginable, Julius Shulman had passed away in Los Angeles . . . and for all I know, it happened when I was gazing at his star in the desert town forever linked to his work.

In Shulman's LA Times obituary, this quote stuck with me: "Modernism really was about a belief in a promising future, a belief that our problems could be solved easily by progress," said Craig Krull, whose Santa Monica gallery represents Shulman's work. While I can't quite agree with progress being the sole savior of our ills, optimism is something that comes through loud and clear in Shulman's elegant images. As 2009 nears its end, we need all the optimism we can get.

More Palm Springs images:

Coachella Valley Savings & Loan , blt. 1960

Palm Springs Visitor Center, blt. 1965

Palm Springs Tramway Alpine Station, blt. 1961-63

Next visit? February.

For more information, Desert Modern fans should visit

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