Arizona at Midcentury
Photographs by Julius Shulman
Story by Alison King
In Autumn of 2008 we invited legendary architectural photographer Julius Shulman to be our guest speaker at the Modern Phoenix Expo 2009, specifically to talk about his work in the state of Arizona. He was happy to oblige, but at 98 he became too frail to travel for our event. We'd spent hours with our noses in borrowed books ferreting out the handful of photos and writing about his Arizona work. This led to a jawdropping journey through the Julius Shulman Archive at the Getty Research Institute to find whatever we could about Arizona in his imagery. It was developing into too good of a story to give up.
Disappointed but undaunted we sent the Editor of Desert Living magazine, David Tyda, to Los Angeles with our Arizona findings on a laptop to capture what would become Shulman's last known interview about (and only known large curation of) 70+ samples of exclusively Arizona work.
Shulman was characteristically sassy that day, patiently tolerating and then redirecting the questions we'd prepared. He was reluctant to regale David with details about Arizona architects and instead was excited to talk about his experiences photographing prisoners of war in Italian and German internment camps in Florence, Arizona and why they might be forgotten or lost already in his body of work. "I'd deliver a set of 8X10 prints to whomever gave me the assignment, the commanding officer. All that mattered was to deliver a set of gossy prints. Where those photographs are now, who knows, who gives a damn? In those days the magazines were not printing pictures of Itaian prisoners of war."
Colorful memories, such as sitting on hay bales staged on the flat rooftops of Haver Homes, painted a picture of desert life in the 40s and 50s. He chided us for bringing only one set of Arcosanti photos from the 70s with us, instead of the complete series he had taken over the years. He insisted we go back to the Getty Institute, together. "I should be there with you! Let's go there on assignment. We'll have to do some research ourselves."
(Sorry Mr. Shulman, I love Arcosanti too, but I only had 4 hours at the Archives and a limited budget! And alas, now you cannot go with me.)
Occasionally he'd sigh in delight, as if bumping into an unexpected old friend, upon seeing a photo of his that might not have seen the light of day for decades: "That's beautiful, it portrays the house!" Though they were well published in their time, such as a Haver Home in Arizona Homes magazine Wand a Blaine Drake home in Sunset, only the most recognizable work by Arizona's biggest names seems to get selected for publication in art photography volumes by the likes of Taschen and Phaidon: Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri and Blaine Drake. Justifiably so. The publishing houses have their own editorial agendas, and ours has always been to crack the mystery wide open and set local design history free.
That's what is unique about Modern Phoenix's curation of his Arizona work. Here highbrow and lowbrow collide; tract houses on tumbleweed-lined lots rub shoulders with architectural masterworks like the Woods/Mills House (a.k.a. Soleri's Dome House). Through my research in the Archives I unearthed treasures of popular architecture by forgotten tract home designer John Sing Tang, the glory days of now-neglected Country Club Apartments by Ralph Haver, and a Blaine Drake remodel once owned by my husband's grandmother. We always knew the photograph we'd inherited was special, we just didn't know it was that special.
The earliest known images the Getty Research Institute could help us find were taken in 1949, during a visit that appears to be designed to document the work of a young Blaine Drake. Drake was once a Fellow at Taliesin West but set out on his own in the 40s, creating a successful practice in designing single-story desert modern homes and tasteful remodels (with a passion for modern, minimalist hearths — well documented by Shulman, surely for speculative use in magazines). This association with Drake led Shulman to an introduction to Frank Lloyd Wright and the widely-published photographs we know today.
In 1949 Shulman also visited Hanny's department store (now adapted into a restaurant in downtown Phoenix), an A. Quincy Jones contemporary home in Arcadia (which later transformed into a Christian nun's retreat, current status unknown) and some modest but optimistically practical Ralph Haver homes.
A return visit in 1950 documented a Shreiber brothers Pacemaker House in Uptown Phoenix, a school and bank by Ed Varney, several more Blaine Drakes and a visit to the Woods/Mills house by Soleri and Mills up in Cave Creek. In this breathtaking series of photos, his assistant Higgins can be seen operating the rotating dome. Local legend has it that the day Shulman photographed the dome is the only time the dome ever properly operated.
Another visit in 1956 framed stunning views of the Sedona landscape as seen from Ashen and Allen's Holy Cross Chapel. At the time of my visit to the Getty in early 2009, they were still in the process of cataloguing the two hundred thousand images. The resources that were available were surprisingly thin on visits during the 1960s, which I consider to be one of the true high points of Phoenix's design heritage in the form of municipal, worship, educational and bank architecture. The 60s era is conspicuously absent.
This only gives me a good reason to go back some day and unearth more treasures to share—an event I relish with anticipation. The white-glove experience of indexing through the well-organized archives, from the boxes of 8X10 prints to the binders of contact sheets and milky sleeves of large-format negatives, was truly exhilarating. As a fellow artist and amateur photographer the immediacy and near presence of the unedited work was emotionally overwhelming. It was humbling to be in such intimate audience with Greatness.
The reason why some of these photos appear so raw with unfinished edges or obvious flaws is that they were often merely contact prints or negatives that never made it to contact. It is possible they're even rejects that Shulman might be mortified that I'm publishing today. I make no apologies for what they are—one man's vision of an American region developing its own voice in the chorus of international Modernism, awkward moments and all. Typically, however, Shulman was able to find extraordinary beauty in Arizona's architecture.
We are grateful to Shulman for his legacy and to the Getty staff for facilitating my research on this unique exhibition of his work. We hope that you enjoy viewing these images as much as we enjoyed re-discovering them.