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A Shot In The Dark
The unknown story behind L.A.’s most celebrated photograph
Julius Shulman / J.Paul Getty Trust / Julius Shulman photography archive
When Julius Shulman snapped what is perhaps the most famous picture ever taken of Los Angeles, could he have imagined, could any of his subjects have imagined, that a single image would encapsulate the promises, hopes, and dreams of L.A.’s future—and conjure our fantasies of its past?
Architect Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22, also known as the Stahl House, was unlike anything ever constructed.
In Shulman's angular composition, two young ladies, blond and carefree, gussied up in white party dresses, loll about on swank furnishings. They are listening to a Chet Baker album, maybe, or just chatting. Traffic, confusion, darkness—they lounge above it all. Light from the globe lamps illuminates their dresses and floods the scene with an ethereal incandescence. They are the embodiment of the Los Angeles good life. They are living a fantasy, and that fantasy could be yours.
Who wouldn't have wanted to join that party in space that balmy evening of May 9, 1960? It had been a sunny day, with moderate smog and a high of 83. Down below people fretted over the 17-week Writers Guild strike and American spy planes patrolling Soviet skies to guard the free world against "the threats of mass destruction," as the Los Angeles Times put it.
If it was a portentous day for news, it was another day at the office for Julius Shulman. At 49, Shulman was the best-known architectural photographer in the country. He documented the visions of such architects as Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Raphael Soriano; they defined the Southern California postwar landscape, and Shulman showed the world. A perfectionist who didn't bracket his photos or go through rolls of film, "One-shot" Shulman and his Swiss-made Sinar camera captured the photo of the girls in a seven-minute exposure. The image catapulted Koenig's achievement into our collective mythology.
Not only did the photograph depend on the house, but the house depended on being photographed. From 1945 to 1966, John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture magazine, sponsored what became known as the Case Study House program. Entenza enlisted Neutra, Soriano, Koenig, designer Charles Eames, and others to build single-family residences infused with the principles of modernism—clean, spare lines, horizontality, natural light. Entenza's mission was to open the eyes of the American middle class to the beauty of inexpensive, prefabricated structures. Home owners such as Carlotta and Buck Stahl, who commissioned Koenig in 1958, received cost breaks on building materials in exchange for allowing photos of the construction to run in the magazine. They were also required to open their door to the public for a month before moving in.
Case Study No. 22 would be published more often than Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. It would appear as backdrop in so many movies and advertising campaigns that Carlotta would lose count. Aliens would abduct Tim Allen there in Galaxy Quest; Greg Kinnear would make it his bachelor pad in Nurse Betty. Italian models in slicked-back hair would frolic poolside in Valentino ads. MOCA would faithfully reproduce the house to life-size scale in its landmark 1989 exhibition "Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses." "From that moment on, there was just a groundswell that got bigger," says Koenig, "and now we're all enveloped."
With photographs of the house featured in, by Koenig's count, at least 1,200 books, we are all enveloped, but none more so than the people who built the house and the figures behind the picture. Forty-one years after the photo was taken, Koenig and Shulman receive calls every day about Case Study No. 22. It will keep them forever connected. "The fellas together are a funny kick," says Carlotta Stahl. "I give them both credit."
British architect Norman Foster has written: "If I had to choose one snapshot, one architectural moment, of which I would like to have been the author, this is surely it." So how was it to live that moment? To find out, we relived it ourselves, reuniting, for the first time since that May night, the authors of an icon and their subjects, including a couple of still-fetching blondes. The Stahls had never met "the girls." The girls hadn't seen each other in 40 years. This time around, one of them brought a four-month-old granddaughter along to watch. But when they took their seats in that familiar glass-walled perch, it was as if they'd never left.
Buck And Carlotta Stahl met when a mutual friend introduced them at the Flight Deck restaurant at LAX. Buck was a purchasing agent with Hughes Aircraft, Carlotta a secretary at North American Aviation. When they married in 1954, Buck was renting a home just west of Crescent Heights and north of Sunset. It provided a good view of an adjoining empty lot.
CARLOTTA STAHL: Every weekend kids would be up here, cars were parked up here—we knew what they were up to. We've always maintained that this was meant to be our lot, because we came over one day to see it, and guess who was here? The owner. He had driven in from La Jolla, and he was thinking about selling it. He said, "I'll make it easy. I'll carry the loan." We set on a price, $13,500. We had friends and family who just didn't understand us—"Why are you doing this? You can buy a nice three-bedroom home for that price, or even less.".
BUCK STAHL: Even my father said I was crazy.
CARLOTTA STAHL: It took us four years to get it paid off. In the Sunday papers, there used to be a section called the Pictorial, with everything pertaining to homes. We saw one of Pierre Koenig's works. At the same time, we saw Craig Ellwood's work. Buck called both of them, and three other architectural firms, to take a look. It was definitely Pierre. Some of the others didn't understand, because Buck kept saying, "I don't care how you do it, there's not going to be any walls in this wing." We didn't want to lose any view anywhere.
BUCK STAHL: Several architects looked at the lot and said it's just impossible to do it.
When USC Graduate Pierre Koenig designed and built his first glass-and-steel house—his own, in Glendale—in 1950, Arts & Architecture editor John Entenza told him, "Call Julius Shulman to come out, and if he likes it, he'll photograph it. And if he likes it, I'll publish it." Born and raised in San Francisco and repulsed by its Victorian painted ladies, Koenig observed shipbuilders in the bay and became enamored with steel. He had designed half a dozen buildings, including a radio station, all in Southern California, when, at 32, he won the Stahls' commission.
PIERRE KOENIG: In class I was interested in steel, and my instructor said, "No, Pierre, you can't use steel on a house. It’s an industrial material, and housewives wouldn't like it." For No. 22, the site was terrible. Nobody could build on it. I was trying to solve a problem. The client had champagne tastes and a beer budget.
CARLOTTA STAHL: We didn't have the foggiest notion you could build with steel in homes. We figured that was for industrial buildings. I have friends who say, "Why don't you have some walls where you hang pictures?" And I say, "I've got a picture out there that is perfect."
Construction on No. 22 began in the summer of 1959. The steel frame went up in a day. Nine months later, pushing to make the deadline for Arts & Architecture and its public showing, Julius Shulman set up his Sinar.
KOENIG: We've got to shoot, we've got to publish, we've got to go to press. On Monday morning this has got to be done. Half the stuff isn't done, it’s a bare yard, the furniture was supposed to be there Friday. I called Van Keppel-Green, who were bringing the furniture. "Where's the truck?" "We're working on it, we're tracing it now, but we have to stop at five o'clock because that's the end of the day." I said, "Give me the number. I've got to have that furniture." I found the guy. He had driven from San Diego to L.A. via Kansas City to visit his mother. I actually got him on the phone, and I said, "You haul your ass out here." I was using real army language. He drove all night and got here. While Julius is setting up, the guys are moving the furniture in. I went home and got my Architectural Pottery, which you see in the photo, and I brought outdoor chairs up. I had my assistant, Jim Jennings, up there.
JIM JENNINGS: I was a student at USC but worked part-time as a draftsman. I went to work for Pierre because I had seen his work in Arts & Architecture and didn't particularly like it. To me it was cold. I wanted to see what he saw. I had just begun working for him, and he told me that Julius Shulman was going to be photographing the Case Study House and he would like me to go up and assist Julius in any way I could. I invited Don to help.
DON MURPHY: Jim and I were roommates and frat brothers at Kappa Alpha. We were in the same architectural school; we both graduated in '61. When Jim said, "Do you want to come up and help?" I said, "Wow, that's cool." It was the first time I met Julius Shulman in person. Julius just sensed the relationship with structure and light and did a marvelous job with it.
LELAND Y. LEE: I was Julius's assistant. Julius worked very fast, but you had to wait for the right light, especially doing night pictures. There was a lot of improvisation, cutting branches and moving them to hide bare spots or create the illusion of land where it didn't exist. We had to maneuver and place lights mostly to avoid reflections in the glass. Sometimes it would help to open a sliding glass door.
JENNINGS: When you are finishing a house and working around it, everything in the soil gets destroyed from materials and people stomping on it. That's the way it was around the whole house.
KOENIG: You don't see it in the picture—it all looks serene—but in the background all hell is breaking loose. People are running around, and junk and trash is piled up. If I had a proclivity for an ulcer, I'd certainly have had one.
Raised on a Connecticut farm and in Boyle Heights, Julius Shulman broke into the profession in 1936, after impressing Richard Neutra with a handful of snapshots he took of the architect's Kun House. His photographs were elegant, sparse, beautifully composed; his twilight rendering of Neutra's Kaufmann House, taken on 1947, showed his affinity for using the prolonged exposure to dramatic effect.
JULIUS SHULMAN: I wanted to breathe some air into the house, not to pose them with their faces in the camera necessarily, but to get a feeling of natural activity, as well as using them for scale, After all, architecture is for people. That's when I said to Pierre, "Tell the students to bring their girlfriends." I always use people.
JENNING: Ann came up after school—we were engaged—and she was dressed in teacher's school clothes. I thought it would be interesting for her to see. It was all new to her. She brought Cynthia with her.
Jim Jenning's fiancée, Ann Lightbody, was a 21-year-old old history and political science major at UCLA. She grew up in Pasadena with her family friend Cynthia Murfee, who later became Cynthia Tindle, was a senior at Pasadena High School. Through Ann and Jim, she had met Don Murphy at a Christian retreat the four of them had attended Easter week in the San Bernardino Mountains. She was quite interested in him.
CYNTHIA TINDLE: They said, "Wear a dress—you might be in a picture." We all went together, like we were on a date. Don had a '55 Chevy, with turquoise sides. They were the greatest cars going. Nobody was living in the house. The kitchen was empty. It was pretty wonderful—you step out of your bedroom and you're in a pool. It was just a casual evening of fun. I happened to like Don, so I wouldn't have cared if I just stood there.
ANN LIGHTBODY: I was just shocked that there was plaster dust everywhere. We came up because Don and Jim were so in love with Pierre's work. We were milling around, because it wasn't finished. The kitchen wasn't a kitchen yet. There was no food. Did the guys take us out for dinner afterward? Probably not.
TINDLE: We could make something up to sound good.
LIGHTBODY: Yes, I remember, we brought up a picnic hamper with champagne and strawberries and sat at the edge . . .
TINDLE: There was a warm summer breeze blowing, a hot Santa Ana . . .
LIGHTBODY: No, but I did love water, and I'd never seen this water treatment before. The view was just . . .
TINDLE: It was a perfect night. Beautiful.
SHULMAN: It was a warm night, and I was inside photographing the house with Pierre. I happened to step outside and saw the view, and here the girls were sitting through the glass, just having a conversation. My assistant was setting some lights for me—we were doing an interior photograph—and then when I saw what was going on, I quickly came back in the house and told everyone, "We're changing the composition," brought the camera outside, and readjusted the lights.
TINDLE: I think Julius was taking some pictures with nobody in them. Then he said, "Why don't you girls sit over there?" They didn't come and pose us. They said, "Cynthia, you look out the window. Ann, you look at Cynthia. Just pretend you're having a conversation."
LEE: Julius very seldom uses professionals. I'm sure the girls felt self-conscious. It's rare to get a layperson, who is not trained professionally, to pose for a shot and not think of it as a snapshot. We told them to just sit there and look at the view.
SHULMAN: I told the girls to stay where you are, you're in the perfect position. I had one raise her elbow up—she was leaning back—and the other one was just sitting comfortably. I set the lights and adjusted for proper exposure. I came back in and said, "We've got a great picture coming up here." I turned off the house lights and replaced them with flashbulbs.
LEE: I was a little pooh-bah. Julius had his four-by-five view camera on a sturdy tripod. I had to change lamps after each exposure, remove the burnt-out bulbs, and replace them.
SHULMAN: With the house dark, the girls were just sitting there talking. I said, "Don't worry that they're in the dark." We wouldn't be seeing them. Then I exposed seven minutes of city night lights, because they were weaker than the light would be inside the house when I took the flash. After I took that exposure I closed the shutter, and my lights were set with flashbulbs. I went back into the house. My assistant turned on the ceiling lights. I told the girls, "When I call to you from the camera, I'm going to say, `Hold still, keep your pose.' Just keep talking if you want to. At the appropriate time when I call you, a flash will go off."
LIGHTBODY: We were just chatting. We only had dreams at that time.
TINDLE: What were we talking about? Probably Don and Jim. I didn't think, "Oh, gee, I'm going to be in something famous." I'm not a person who likes to have people looking at her. If I had known, I might have been a little nervous about how I looked, or gone out and bought something new for the occasion. Yes, I was in a dress, but in 1960, you didn't go out without wearing a dress. You would never have gone out wearing jeans or pants.
LIGHTBODY: I worked my way through UCLA—nothing I had was fashionable. We were tomboys.
SHULMAN: I built that flash exposure to combine with my already exposed film for the exterior. It's a composite. I alerted them to stay put for the quick flash, pose, and click!
They made the deadline for the June 1960 Arts & Architecture. Shulman's shot of Ann and Cynthia perched high in the sky filled the cover of the Sunday Pictorial section of the L.A. Examiner on July 17, 1960. Under the headline A MILESTONE IN STEEL, the story exclaimed, "This house shows how steel can have a future in housing." It didn't, really, but Koenig stayed busy. He remains a working architect based in Brentwood and is a professor at USC's School of Architecture.
Jim Jennings and Ann Lightbody would marry, have a son, and divorce. Jim would become an architect, go bankrupt, and learn to trust God. Remarried, he lives in Costa Mesa. Ann is an assistant dean at the University of Washington's School of Business Administration. Don Murphy and Cynthia Murfee dated for a few years before breaking it off. Each married and had children. Don is an architect in Sierra Madre; last year Cynthia, who lives in Hermosa Beach, retired after 36 years with the school district. Leland Y. Lee enjoyed a long career as a photographer. Carlotta and Buck Stahl raised three children in the house and continue to live there.
Julius Shulman would shoot until he reached job number 8,000 or so, sometime in 1985. Now 90, he has been coaxed out of retirement a few times, to shoot Gucci creative director Tom Ford's Neutra house, or the Getty. None of his images would resonate more than that single seven-minute exposure.
CARLOTTA STAHL: When anybody comes in the house for the first time, they say, "Are you one of those girls?" Movie companies started seeking the house right away. The first was in 1962, this Italian movie called Smog. They were making fun of the "rich people" who lived in glass houses. One of the days they were shooting, the view was too clear, so they got spray and smogged the windows. We just thought, "This is our home," but it didn't take too long for it to kick into what it has become, and we're grateful, completely grateful, because Buck retired in '78, and what you got for retirement in '78 couldn't do nothing today. So I openly thank the movie industry. I've got one very strong restriction, though—I will not allow nudity. My Case Study House is not going to be associated with that.
SHULMAN: My wife used to say, "After all, it's only a glass box with two girls sitting in it." But somehow that one scene expresses what architecture is all about. What if I hadn't gone outside to see the view? I would have missed a historic photograph, and more than that, we would have missed the opportunity to introduce this kind of architecture to the world.
TINDLE: It's a beautiful house, and it's overlooking Hollywood, which is sensational—it couldn't be a more well-known city. With Ann and I, you can put into our conversation whatever you think we were talking about. We were young and about to start the adventure of life. There were a lot of places you thought you were going, and all the places you didn't.