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Carine Fabius

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Photographer Julius Shulman's Heir Apparent: Self-Effacement In A World Of Self-Promotion

Posted: 07/29/09 11:45 AM ET

Juergen Nogai reminds me of Barack Obama -- a sea of calm and dignity amidst all those noisy drops of senatorial Blue Dog egos.

When famed architectural photographer Julius Shulman died two weeks ago, requests to interview his partner of ten years came pouring in, and Juergen Nogai delivered. (Full disclosure: Juergen Nogai is a friend.)

"He's so sad," Juergen's wife Jeannie said to me. But all I wanted to know was, "Is he taking the opportunity to talk about his work, too?" Years ago I used to be in the public relations business, and I couldn't help but press the point.

"I don't think I can say anything like that to him right now," she said.

And then I read an interview that Juergen gave to the Wall Street Journal about Shulman; it left me breathless and inspired. Juergen is himself a brilliant photographer whose super clean, flawless and luminous architectural photography turns any building into a work of art, and any nonexpert (like me) into a fan of the medium. But you would never know that about him because, just as he is in his work, Juergen 's laser-focus was seared on the subject at hand: his friend Julius.

Through the interview, one comes away with a rare, fascinating and intimate view into the creative process of the man referred to as "the great", "the legendary", "the premier", "the dean" [of photography] and every other superlative one can think of. You also get a rich sense of how Shulman impacted the younger photographer. But, frustratingly, the reader is left clueless about the man whose work and work ethic brought Shulman out of retirement and into another two hundred some properties before passing away at a dynamic 98. So I called him because I was curious to know.

"What do you think Julius learned from you?" I asked him.

"He got that photography changed a lot, and that he had to change, too. Julius came to love decorating," he said, "and I was the 'cleaner.' I was able to make him see new perspectives because we have so many similar ideas and views of photography. Our work was completely homogeneous; the differences we had [on how to create a photo] were maybe just an inch or two apart so we were partners in our vision. We both knew that our job was to give houses the soul of the people living in them."

After spending 16-hour days together on shoots, the two men often argued, too.

"I would sometimes have to tell him that his choices were terrible!" he says, laughing. "And he would fight with me, and it would get nasty; but because he was open to my ideas, we would take the photo both ways, and many times he would choose my version over his."

I remember hearing about the day that Juergen received a telephone call from Julius ten years ago. Through a series of serendipitous events, the two men had met and clicked instantly. At the time, Julius was retired because he'd tried many times before to work with other photographers only to fight too much with them. However Juergen's distinctive approach to the medium had stirred something in the aging Shulman.

"We have a lot of work to do together," the "great" and "legendary" photographer said to his new partner.

Back in PR mode, I suggested to Juergen that he consider writing a book about his adventures of the last ten years with Julius. In his typical and utterly refreshing (if maddening) lack of interest in self-promotion, Juergen resisted.

"Several people are encouraging me to do this," he said, but I don't know. I have to say, though, that there have been so many requests for photos since his death that I have been going through our files and it's making me remember so many great stories...maybe I'll think about it."

A part of me wants him to ignore my advice.