Ned Cramer
Mike Morgan Ned Cramer

We lost an important voice recently, and no, I’m not talking about Michael Jackson. My mourning is reserved for another fabled Angeleno, photographer Julius Shulman, who died on July 15 at the remarkably ripe age of 98. Shulman was one of the last representatives of a great moment in architectural history: the postwar era of California Dreamin’, when progress made perfect sense and technology was the answer to every problem under the sun.

Two vintage Shulman prints hang in the boardroom here at Hanley Wood, including one of his most famous pictures, a nighttime view of the Pierre Koenig–designed Case Study House #22, its glass-walled living room cantilevered dizzyingly over the Hollywood Hills. Shulman populated the scene with two leggy models, perched on leggy modern furniture and seemingly indifferent to the spectacle of the city below. During long meetings, Shulman’s photo gives me the perfect kickoff for a daydream.

The photographer struggled with architect-clients like Richard Neutra, who wanted his projects to be shot empty, even of furniture, so nothing could compete with the architecture. Shulman preferred to animate buildings with signs of habitation. Never mind that the people and objects in Shulman’s pictures were often models and props, with no real-world relationship to their surroundings. The effect was everything.

Just days before Shulman’s death, his business partner Juergen Nogai shared a charming and illuminating story with The Wall Street Journal:

One technique Shulman taught him, he said, was to place people in “artificial positions” in the photographs. It gives the pictures “a strange feel and makes them very interesting,” he said. In one house, Mr. Nogai noted, Shulman placed a woman in the kitchen in high heels, dressed as if she were going to a party, standing at the counter cutting a fruit. “I was looking closely at this photo and I said, ‘Wait a minute, Julius. She doesn’t have a knife in her hand.’ He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘And?’ ‘She has a bottle opener in her hand.’ He said it doesn’t matter—nobody would see that. She’s doing something. For him it was the action. Everything does not have to be real. It’s just the action, the illusion that we’re creating.”

Thanks to his penchant for visual narrative, Shulman’s pictures capture the spirit of high-modern, postwar optimism even better, perhaps, than the buildings he photographed—better than just about any other creative outpouring of the day. And what a day it was: Case Study houses under construction, the Eameses in action … only Hollywood’s collective celluloid output rivaled Shulman’s singular vision of paradise. And yes, California circa 1960 was indubitably a paradise, but at what price? Alas, there’s not enough oil in Araby or gold in Fort Knox for us to carry on that carefree, freeway-bound existence.

Think I’m exaggerating? The state of California faces an $8 billion budget deficit next year, and the federal government estimates a 2010 deficit of $1.26 trillion. America continues to milk the dream long after it soured.

In our moment of fiscal and spiritual crisis, it’s tempting to wax nostalgic or moralize about the age of Shulman. One could waver endlessly between conflicting impulses to return to that ostensibly simpler age or condemn its putative superficiality. Ultimately, it’s better to learn from our history—to recognize that we can’t ever go back, but that we can’t move forward, either, without a dream.

Politicians like to say that the American way of life is non-negotiable. But how you define our way of life is really the issue. I’d like to think that the American Dream amounts to more than the material benefits of cheap energy. I think our way of life is rooted in ingenuity and hard work. Such was the substance behind Shulman’s gorgeous illusions.