Through the Lens of Julius Shulman: La Jolla Historical Society showcases work by architectural photographer


In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, America was in a place for architectural revival. There was a huge need for housing, and architects were seeking something uniquely American that would stand out from the European-inspired building styles of the previous era.

Enter Mid-Century Modern architecture. Distinguished by a minimal aesthetic, incorporation of the outdoors and geometric lines, this style was intended to mark the coming era of American architecture.

And Julius Shulman (1910-2009) was there to document it all.

Shulman was considered an architectural photographer before such a profession existed. An unprecedented showcase of his work will be on view at the latest La Jolla Historical Society exhibition, “Julius Shulman: Modern La Jolla,” Sept. 28 to Jan. 19, 2020 at the Wisteria Cottage Gallery, 780 Prospect St.

“There is a strong history of Mid-Century Modern architecture in La Jolla,” La Jolla Historical Society executive director Heath Fox told the Light. “This distinct period of La Jolla’s history is equally as strong as the Jazz Age period of the 1920s (which featured Spanish Colonial, French Chateau and English Tudor) and the English Cottage-era that came before it.”

In over 200 visits to San Diego, Shulman’s photos “really helped spread the word of what Southern California Mid-Century Modern architecture was and really established it. You didn’t see anything like that coming out of the 1920s,” Fox said.

“This architecture was developed at a time when La Jolla was transitioning,” he added. “UC San Diego and Salk Institute for Biological Studies were built in 1960. Those were transformative events in the century-long history of this community, and this was the architecture that was the favorite style at that time.”

Curated by Keith York, the exhibition features images of La Jolla buildings constructed in the 1940s to the 1960s (accompanying exhibits are on view downtown, see info box with this story).

“In some circles, the name Julius Shulman is synonymous with Mid-Century Modern architecture,” York said. “The key to understanding how the public has generated fondness and passion for this (style) is through these very romantic photos that feature landscapes, people, furniture and houses. They look like they are in this Utopian, futuristic space.”

Often hired by architects building unique houses to document their projects, Shulman was sought after for his eye for composition and ability to capture light and lines. He would also sell his images to architectural publications.

“Shelter magazines, as they were known, became a thing after the war,” York said. “People who owned homes bought these magazines to learn about how to compose their houses: how to landscape and where washing machines should go. So lots of photographs were needed to document all these ideas, to hit this generation of people who had money and owned property. And the appetite of these magazines was insane, so photographers had a heck of a time feeding this beast.”

In a broader sense, York added: “His images have become how people understand what is post-war modernism is in Southern California. There is modern architecture all over the world, but (Shulman) was running around Los Angeles, Palm Springs and San Diego as these buildings were being built.”

Because Shulman is far better known in the other areas he photographed, a collection of San Diego-centered works of this magnitude has never been shown.

“It’s an honor to work with the La Jolla Historical Society to bring this into view,” York said. “My hope is that people will see these photos and connect with him the way thousands of people have in LA and Palm Springs. He came here dozens of times in his life, but there isn’t the same level of appreciation.”

Fox said the exhibition is a good fit for the La Jolla Historical Society because Shulman was “an important photographer, documenting an important period of history for La Jolla and San Diego, and had an important body of work,” and that “Mid-Century Modern architecture is underappreciated, but the interest is growing.”

IF YOU GO: “Julius Shulman: Modern La Jolla” is on view Sept. 28 to Jan. 19, 2020 at Wisteria Cottage Gallery, 780 Prospect St. Public hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Admission is free. (858) 459-5335.