So I was excited when I stumbled upon a structure I hadn’t seen before in a 2009 Los Angeles magazine story by Mary Melton. “Lens Master” is a profile of Julius Shulman, one of the most famous architecture photographers of all time, a pioneer of lifestyle photography and a fantastically interesting character.
The profile unfurls snapshot by snapshot, like a roll of 35-millimeter film: A “take” of Shulman in 36 exposures. Present-day scenes alternate with flashbacks. Some scenes are brief snapshots. Others are environmental portraits. In some scenes, the author appears “in the shot,” so to speak. In others, she’s present but invisible or slightly out of focus, hidden behind the second-person POV (point of view).
I often think about scenes in terms of changing camera angles and lenses, but this story took that concept to a whole different level.
“Lens Master” won the 2010 PEN Center USA’s Literary Award for Journalism, one of many awards racked up by the magazine during Melton’s 8-year tenure as editor (including three National Magazine Awards and 12 nominations). It was also the last profile of Julius Shulman, who died six months after the story ran. He was 98.
I was curious about some of the decisions that went into this story structure, so I tracked down Melton, who left the magazine in 2017 to work as a writer, editorial strategist, and consultant for clients. She serves as Editorial Director for Godfrey Dadich Partners and Editor-at-Large for Alta Magazine. A fifth-generation Angeleno, she’s now working on a book about her native city.
Here’s what she had to say about a story that, a decade later, still reads fresh and brings a great character to life. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come up with the idea for the structure of this profile? Why 36 “exposures” and not 24?
I reported the story over the course of a year, in bits and bobs because I was working as a full-time editor at Los Angeles magazine. I’d sneak out for a couple of hours to hang out at Shulman’s home. I’d take him out to lunch, or to events on evenings or weekends. I also spent a ton of time studying his work and how it paralleled — and in many ways defined — the city’s history. I realized that I had a formed a scrapbook of his life, a series of snapshots that seemed the ideal way in to a story about a photographer. It couldn’t be a neat, linear story. That’s not how I reported it, or how I experienced him.
I realized that I had a formed a scrapbook of his life, a series of snapshots that seemed the ideal way in to a story about a photographer.
As for 24 versus 36, the first draft was 24 exposures. When I met with my editor, Kit Rachlis, he suggested adding 12 more exposures to offer an even broader picture of Shulman’s life and work in all the stuff I had to leave out in the first draft. Kit is that rare, wonderful editor who actually encourages his writers to add to, not subtract from, a story.
In your profile, you’re very deliberate about changing perspectives and lenses, which is something good photographers do. Was this something you learned from Shulman? Or did you find inspiration in some other source? (And are you a photographer yourself?)
I’m drawn to stories and profiles that look at subjects from multiple angles; we’re all complex, no one can only be seen in black and white, and to me the most compelling stories use multiple lenses. Shulman was no exception. He was charming and cantankerous; he was a bully and a pushover. Something he said that did inspire me, and that has changed the way I not only take a picture but also write, was that photography is about capturing light, not subjects. I love taking photographs, and I think about what he said every time I frame one up. It translates to the written word as well: How does the light we shine on a subject define who she or he is?
How did you go about deciding the order of these snapshots? Do you start your stories with an outline?
For larger pieces I strictly abide by the index-card method. After I’m done reporting I start jotting down every scene I’ve got, every description I have, every person I’ve interviewed, every point I want to make, onto a series of cards and lay them out on the floor. Which pieces support one another? What’s the right rhythm of long and short? How does the puzzle fit together? I move them around a lot during the planning process until they feel right and then go at the writing. It makes it so much more manageable. So it’s not an outline, per se, but a moveable feast of vignettes that together need to make a meal.
Did you think about changing lenses as you wrote each scene? What else did you think about when crafting scenes, individually and collectively?
I definitely wanted to mix up perspectives and dot the story with different storytellers and angles into his life. Over the course of a year I had more scenes than could fit, so I decided which would be most representative of a larger point I was trying to make. I chose scenes that could be ways into his personality. It was important to me to that this not be a hagiography. I wanted to portray the contradictions, so I made sure in crafting scenes to not hold back. I also made sure I was telling little stories that could stand on their own — back to the vignette idea. These were snapshots, but each needed to move his story forward.
I chose scenes that could be ways into his personality.
What informed your choice of the opening image/scene? The ending?
For some reason I always know where or how I’m going to end a story before I figure out how to begin it. I watched him say good night to his studio one evening, blowing it a kiss, and knew instinctively that it was my ending, probably long before I had finished reporting the story. When I was going through my cards, I had one about “Julius on the phone” that conveyed how in demand he was. I realized this could be a nice way to introduce him to the uninitiated, and to bookend the story with him being so alive in his studio — which was the heart of his home — and him leaving his studio, which was a metaphor for the fact that he’d be leaving us soon, too.
Exposure 2, “Mythmaker,” zooms out, answers the “so what” question. Did you think of this as your nut graf? Was it hard to distill this into a few hundred words, knowing everything you knew about Shulman?
I struggled with that paragraph, because as a writer (and an editor) I usually advocate to do whatever you can to not have a “nut graf” in a story. They can so easily feel lazy and pat. At the same time, this piece verged on stream of consciousness, so I knew I couldn’t be vague in the biography and I felt historically obligated to follow-up that opening scene with a who-the-hell-is-this-guy paragraph that zoomed out and filled in the blanks. As for the length, I knew I had plenty more space to get into the nitty-gritty of it all so I didn’t feel obliged to squeeze everything in there. Just hit the high notes.
How many times did you interview or interact with Shulman before writing this? You’ve done stories with him in the past. At what point did you decide to do this profile?
I’d known him for many years — first, as an editor who used his photographs in stories; later, as a writer. I’d long been obsessed with what I consider his most famous photograph of Los Angeles, featuring two young women sitting in a midcentury home that looks suspended in outer space. For an oral history I wrote in 2001, I orchestrated a reunion of the two young women, who hadn’t seen each other in 40 years, with everyone who was responsible for the photograph, including Shulman and the owners of the home. It led me to want to do a more in-depth piece about Shulman — a legendary figure in L.A., still working well into his ‘90s, who’d never been seriously profiled before. He was of game because he loved attention.
It’s always a challenge to write about someone who has been written about a great deal. What were some of the particular challenges of writing about Shulman? (Some of these challenges you cleverly make apparent in some of the exposures in which you are present.)
While he had been written about before, no one had ever gone deep with him. Most of the stories were pretty gushy or superficial. He didn’t really like going deep, so that was a challenge. I persisted, and also pushed the people around him to speak honestly about him. I wanted to tell the stories that I’d heard, or been present for, but perhaps other writers had avoided. I knew this would be the last profile of him, and I didn’t want to whitewash the hard parts.
There are a couple of expository/history sections, where you pull back from Shulman to give a timeline of important moments in L.A. modernism. Why was this important to include? Why did you break it into two sections? In my mind, they appeared like a slide show.
Ooh, I like that — a slide show! Not my intention, but it was important to remind readers how interconnected he was to all of the great moments in midcentury modernism. It wasn’t that he had a front seat to this — he was in the front seat. I needed to give proper historical context for the story, and it was too much for one section.
Both you and filmmaker, Eric Bricker, who filmed a documentary about Shulman called Visual Acoustics, acknowledged that it could be hard to get to know “the real Julius.” He could be quixotic and cantankerous. How did you build rapport with a guy who it seems was so easily irritated by the wrong question/comment/word? Were there any awkward moments that didn’t make it in the story?
I’m sure there were a few awkward moments that didn’t make it in, but not because I was avoiding them. I had many to choose from! My goal was to make him as comfortable around me as possible, which is why I spent a year on the story. I realize of course that it’s a luxury not often afforded a writer, but it made a huge difference. When I was visiting with him at his home, I don’t think I even took out a notebook until the last month. We just hung out. I would jot down notes and observations in the evening, stories I’d want him to retell or revisit later when I had a recorder present. If you’ve got the time, you don’t want to be so bogged down sweating through note-taking and worrying about your recorder that you aren’t actually listening to the person. So much of reporting is just listening — or should be.
So much of reporting is just listening — or should be.
How long did this take to report and write, and how many sources did you interview?
I reported it over a year and then spent a month writing and editing it, in between putting out a monthly magazine. I spoke to a couple dozen sources, many of whom didn’t make it into the story. It’s so important to cast a wider net than you’ll need. His daughter, Judy, was forthcoming and incredibly helpful, which made my job easier. Spending time with his art, and with curators who could speak to it, also made a big difference.
Did this story teach you anything new about craft or process?
The story was a great reminder to me that you should always play with form and structure. You want to keep readers on their toes, so to speak. You want to be nimble as a writer. Life is too short to write something boring.
Anything else you’d like to say about the craft of this piece, or writing/storytelling in general?
It’s always quite amazing to me that there are so many people who you’d think had been profiled, or stories that had been told, and then you do some digging and realize that’s not the case. Surface profiles, yes, but not a story that puts it all into proper context. His was a big life, and while it was intimidating going into it — how do I capture 96 years in one story? — thinking about it as a scrapbook of snapshots made it manageable. Which is a great reminder that even the most daunting project or goal can be broken down to its essential pieces.