Going big III: Julius, and conceptualization

Case Study #22 — Pierre Koenig, Architect, photo by Julius Shulman

The December 4th issue of the New Yorker features a short piece about Philip Johnson’s Glass House, which was recently photographed by architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Julius Shulman is 96 years old, and last photographed this house in 1963.

If you don’t know his name, you probably know his images. Shulman is famous for his photographs of modern architecture by Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Charles and Ray Eames. Last year I saw a wonderful exhibit of Shulman’s work at the Getty Museum, and also checked out his book, Julius Shulman: Architecture and Its Photography and A Constructed View: The Architectural Photography of Julius Shulman.

Shulman spent two days photographing the Glass House in Chicago. He made sixteen images. Let’s have a moment of silence for all the 35mm shooters to gasp. 2 days, 16 images. Probably with a 4×5 camera and black and white film.

Whippersnappers with digital SLRs might find this incredulous, as it’s the polar opposite of the digital SLR mentality — keep on shooting until it looks good on the back of the camera. Or “spray and pray” as the sports shooters call it.

Let me ask you an important question. Do you sometimes know before you press the shutter release that you’ve made a great photo? When in the photographic process do you move from the idea to make an image of something, to the conceptualization of the photograph, to the realization that this will be the most pleasing image you’ve shot in some time?

Sometimes I know before looking through the camera, other times this knowing is confirmed in the viewfinder. Once in a while I’m surprised by a great image on the back of the digital SLR, but usually I know beforehand. After becoming serious about photography I shot film for a few years before going digital. I wonder how this process differs for people that have done almost all of their photography with a digital camera?

Maybe the review piece of shooting digital isn’t that different than shooting medium or large format with a Polaroid back, but the number of exposures seems to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some may argue that it’s the final image that counts. Whether it takes you 300 shots with digital to get a few keepers, or 5 sheets of 4×5 film. But are some digital shooters spending too much time pressing buttons and chimping, instead of doing more work between their eyes and brain first?

Have a look at this interesting article by Bernard Languillier over on Luminous Landscape called On the Appeal of Large Format Cameras for an Innocent DSLR Photographer. I feel a large debt of gratitude to Bernard for his extensive article on this topic, as it brought me back down to earth on a number of important issues. Tune in later this week for another episode of Going big.

9 thoughts on “Going big III: Julius, and conceptualization”

  1. Thanks for the great posts Joe!

    I was on board with this series until this post. I think maybe it’s just a case of over-generalization – for example, ‘spray and pray’ is certainly not just a digital phenomenon that didn’t exist for sports shooters pre-digital. Or that the same photographer would require 300 shots with digital go get a couple keepers versus having the name number of keepers with 5 sheets of film because the technology alone disconnects the brain and turns the finger in to a button pushing rat getting his drug fix. Ok, maybe that was an exaggeration…

    The real difference, I believe, is learning that it takes more than just more exposures to make a great image. It’s then that you *want* to slow down and do the things that many (I’m not implicating you here Joe) believe aren’t possible with digital – walking around an area reviewing different angles, thinking about what to exclude/include and how to do it, thinking about exposure, and on and on.

    Maybe it’s night photography that made it more of a necessity for me to slow down, but in any case, I don’t feel like I missed out on a great deal by not spending a lot of time shooting film before going digital.

    Back to the question – yes, a lot of times I feel like I know the image is going to be good before I even pull the trigger. And it’s when that feeling is there that “chimping” is of great benefit! Who wouldn’t want to walk away from a great photographic opportunity knowing that they have a good exposure they can work with back in the digital or traditional darkroom? Other times, something I thought wasn’t that special in the field turns out to be great when I see it for the second time at home.

    None of this is to say that I don’t understand the draw of the enormous amount of detail that can be captured with a large format camera – on the contrary, I debated the same things many times! At this point however, with limited time and money, I can’t justify it.

  2. Thanks for the Julius Shulman links. I’m readying my big camera — a Burke & James 5×7 Commercial View. I just need a dark dark cloth and to clean some film holders. Shulman is amazing. So are the buildings. I was an architecture student in 1963 and thats when I discovered these buildings. I’ts nice to see such stunning pictures of them. I wandered off in different directions but I still love this architecture. (I’m not sure I would want to live in it but it sure looks great!) I’m also into color but looking at these black and white pictures and trying to imagine them in color makes me think that color would be distracting for a lot of them. I must get those books!

  3. This reminds me of Jim Brandenburg’s project in the North Woods where he decided to take one photo per day-literally one click of the camera-for each day of the fall. Every frame is amazing, and it shows his incredible discipline and sense of craft. His website shows some of these images in his Gallery > North Woods section.

    And while I do tend to be in the “it’s the final image that counts” category, we’d still be better off if we took the time to learn our crafts the way that excellent large format shooters must do.

  4. Brian: I’m not trying to imply that one way of working is better than another. If you took a photographer with a DSLR, and another with a 4×5 camera, set them loose at the same location for an hour, and then asked them to submit an 8×10 print of their best image, the equipment and volume of images shot wouldn’t matter much. The tools are a really small part of the equation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sweat having the right tool for the job.

    The DSLR process of shoot, review, and shoot again is a tremendous learning opportunity. We don’t have to wait for the contact sheets to learn from our mistakes – we can instantly and continuously improve our images with instant feedback in the field.

    This process is particularly useful in night photography. I sometimes make 2-3 test exposures to evaluate composition, focus, and exposure before shooting a long exposure.

    Maybe if I had a large ground glass to evaluate the the composition and focus, the process wouldn’t be that different with large format (i.e, I could very carefully compose the image on the back of the camera before shooting). Of course 35mm has a big depth of field advantage — shooting with a 75mm or 90mm lens on a 4×5 camera at f/16 means some seriously long exposures at night.

    You are right that things aren’t much different between 35mm digital and film — we’re just living in a time where the volume of images is enormous, which sometimes makes finding the great images quite difficult. The thing I notice about some photographers who started in the DSLR age is that they’re not paying enough attention to the details of composition. There’s a lot of volume of images on sites like Flickr, and a lot of good images — but some important little details separate good images from great images. This phenomenon is most likely more reflective of many of the people posting images online being relatively new to photography. Film or digital doesn’t really matter, it’s just a matter of paying your dues.

    Thanks for helping me tackle these interesting questions, and rest assured that I think you are a DSLR photographer that is making great images!

    Gordon: Thanks for posting! I agree that these images look great in black and white. My local library had one of the Shulman books, which is great.

    Mike: Thanks for the link to Jim Brandenburg‘s project — a great tie-in to some issues I’ve been thinking about.



  5. Thanks Joe!

    What’s really interesting is that I’ve heard a lot of people (including some instructors) promoting the idea that simply taking more photographs will improve someone’s photography. Missing was any mention of the need to critically evaluate the resulting images!

    I really do think that working with long exposures has the same effect as using a large format camera or some other type of equipment that by itself causes the photographer to slow down. Long exposures make the marginal cost of each additional image high enough that you don’t want to (or can’t for that matter) redo the shot over and over.

    Quote from Joe’s comment: “The thing I notice about some photographers who started in the DSLR age is that they’re not paying enough attention to the details of composition.”

    I can’t agree enough although I have to say it’s really an easy trap to fall in to. Initially, I spent a lot more time worrying about getting noiseless skies than I did thinking about the details that really make the difference! Today, I *try* to focus on the things that I think provide the emotional impact in an image, etc, although I still really want a 5D!!!


  6. Hi Brian -

    Shooting a large volume of images is probably good advice for those starting out. One long blog post and 6 comments later, you hit on an extremely important point – the time, care, and commitment it takes to go out at night and make only a few exposures does seem to share some process similarities to working with bigger formats.

    The jump from a 20D to a 5D is huge. And while the bigger viewfinder and extra megapixels are helpful, it’s really the way the camera “draws” that makes the biggest difference. The signature look of the 5D definitely has some mojo.



  7. About using Flickr as a quality indicator, I think that may be a bit misleading. I’m not a particularly good photographer, but looking through my gallery would make it seem rather worse even than the reality, grim as it is.

    Since it’s so easy to upload and show stuff, most of my images on Flickr are not “best-of” quality, or meant to be seen as such. Each image is very much _not_ individually selected for its poignancy of story and excellence of quality. They are not meant to be leafed through as a portfolio.

    Rather, most images are there not because they’re so good I want to show them to the world (though there are a few). Most are there simply because they’re not so bad I want to throw them away, and having them on Flickr gives me both a backup and an easy way to link to it should I ever have the need (which I regularly do, as a matter of fact). And there certainly images there that are bad enough to thwo away without a second thought, but I needed to show something in the image to someone so uploading it and sending the link was the easiest way to do so.

    I suspect a lot of images on Flickr and other photosites are similar; they’re not a showcase for the cream of the crop, but more of a fileformat-specific backup service with a very convenient browsing interface.

  8. This precise photo by Julius Schulman of Stahl House is an amazing example of how Photography can represent architecture. The photo is now sort of an icon, which represents Los Angeles lifestyle in the ’50s and the idea and concept of postwar housing in the US. After reading the interview with Schulman, Pierre Koenig, Carlotta and Buck Stahl, and the two girls that appear in the photo, it is even more interesting to realize that the moment of capturing that image (that now is worldwide known) was so spontaneous and free. However, the result is powerful, not talking just in a technical way, but about the idea that is behind the photo and all the interpretations and relations we can make with the Modern Architecture.

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