The timeless Julius Shulman


The legendary architectural photographer visits Malibu to sign copies of his latest work, “Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea.”

By Anthony Stitt / Special to The Malibu Times

Like his photographs, he is a puzzle of shadows and shapes.

Like his photographs, he is as sharp as a diamond.

He is also mysterious, mystifying, hypnotic.

And timeless.

Behind eyeglasses, his crystalline blue eyes pierced, peered, flickered, glimmered. His dark hair swooped down. His smile crinkled and wrinkled.

“I’m 44 years old,” he told a young woman.

Caution, he’s also a jokester.

Add a half-century.

Try 94 years old.

In the back of Diesel, A Bookstore scrawled the ancient hand of an ancient man, Julius Shulman, the legendary architectural photographer, who autographed book after book this past Sunday.

For more than two hours, a cavalcade of admirers strolled up to Shulman with his latest creation in tow, the newly released “Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea,” a gorgeous 255-page collaboration of prose, historical nuggets and, of course, Shulman’s Malibu photos, those that marry manmade marvels (the residential masterpieces) with nature-made majesty (sandy tableaus, Pacific blue, undulating land).

Some folks hugged Shulman, a few kissed him, all received a personalized inscription.

Shulman responded with a ceaseless breeze of smirks, guffaws, gestures and mandatory chitchat. “Call me up sometime and we can talk about some procedures,” Shulman hollered out to a man whom he just met. He even stood at a microphone for a 10-minute greeting.

One woman, Betsy Brown Braun, gripped his arm. “The last time I saw you was 40 years ago, and you’ve not changed a drop,” she said, flipping open his book and pointing to a classic Shulman photo of a teenage girl lounging on the sand beneath a towering beach home. “That’s me. I was 17 years old then.”

Braun, now 57, recalled, “I remember, when he took the shot, he took forever to set it up. Painstakingly. He would wait and wait for the waves to break just perfectly.”

Shulman, born in Brooklyn, New York on Oct. 10, 1910, the son of Russian-born Jewish immigrants, first came to Malibu in 1929 armed with a Vest Pocket Kodak.

“I had a 1928 Chevy and used to drive all over the hills [of Malibu]. Just explore,” Shulman said. “Those hills were wild. I’d climb the sand dunes and bring a blanket and lie under the stars and hear all kinds of animals.”

He stopped himself, smiled.

“Not like that today, is it?” he said.

Ed D’Andrea, a Malibu architect and resident, took Shulman’s hand. “We’ve come to see you and catch a glimpse of someone who has met some of the most famous architects who’ve ever lived,” D’Andrea said.

D’Andrea motioned to a photograph in the book. “One of my houses is here. I’m honored.”

Shulman eyed the photo, one of architectural splendor and dusky sky and ocean curl. “This,” he said, “is what Malibu’s all about.”

The birth of Shulman’s professional career, “March 5, 1936,” he recalled of the day he photographed a Hollywood Hills home, the Kun residence, for influential modern architect, Richard Neutra.

For more than 60 years, Malibu has beckoned Shulman, who lives in the Hollywood Hills himself. He’s photographed the works of architectural titans – Frank Gehry, John Lautner and their lot – whose structures pepper the Malibu landscape and pages of “Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea.”

“If there’s a bad architect, you get a bad photo,” Shulman said.

Some call Shulman a legend. Others say genius.

“Genius? No,” Shulman said. “I laugh out loud when I hear somebody call me that.”

“Then who are you?” a man asked.

“I’m Uncle Julius… God gave me this blessing to take photos. Where else did it come from?”

Beside Shulman sat his protégé, Juergen Nogai, who also contributed photos to the book. Nogai and Shulman would traipse the Malibu sand and into many homes searching for the perfect image. “He is amazing,” Nogai said. “He is so fast setting up the photos in his mind.”

Then Richard Olsen drifted into the bookstore. Olsen, a writer specializing in architecture books, recruited Shulman for “Malibu: A Century of Living by the Sea,” and, in essay-style, Olsen profiled 46 homes in the book. “The purpose of the book is to walk you through some of the most exciting Malibu homes,” he said, “and walk you through time.”

The final piece to the book: Best-selling author David Wallace, who penned a 6,000-word introduction of Malibu, “one of the most ballyhooed places in the world,” as he begins.

As the book signing wrapped up, a woman leaned over to Shulman. “You are magical,” she said. “Ninety-four years old. Do you think you can make 120?”

Julius Shulman smiled, not answering, welcoming mystique.

Like his photographs.