I’m obsessed with structure. From John McPhee’s sketch for “Travels in Georgia,” which resembles a Fibonacci Spiral, to the lopsided bell curve of the basic story arc, there are examples in all places to study from and apply. As Nieman’s own Jacqui Banaszynski typically says, “You possibly can’t plagiarize construction.”
So I was excited once I stumbled upon a structure I hadn’t seen before in a 2009 Los Angeles journal story by Mary Melton. “Lens Master” is a profile of Julius Shulman, probably the most well-known structure photographers of all time, a pioneer of way of life images and a fantastically fascinating 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 temporary snapshots. Others are environmental portraits. In some scenes, the writer seems “in the shot,” so to talk. In others, she’s current but invisible or barely out of focus, hidden behind the second-person POV (viewpoint).
I typically take into consideration scenes when it comes to altering digital camera angles and lenses, but this story took that idea to an entire totally different degree.
“Lens Master” gained the 2010 PEN Middle USA’s Literary Award for Journalism, one among many awards racked up by the magazine throughout Melton’s 8-year tenure as editor (including three National Journal Awards and 12 nominations). It was additionally the last profile of Julius Shulman, who died six months after the story ran. He was 98.
I used to be interested in a few of the selections that went into this story construction, so I tracked down Melton, who left the magazine in 2017 to work as a author, editorial strategist, and marketing consultant for shoppers from The Atlantic to Nationwide Geographic. A fifth-generation Angeleno, she’s now working on a guide about her native metropolis.
Here’s what she had to say a few story that, a decade later, nonetheless reads recent and brings an excellent character to life. Our conversation has been edited for size and clarity.
How did you provide you with the thought for the structure of this profile? Why 36 “exposures” and not 24?
I reported the story over the course of a yr, in ins and outs as a result of 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 residence. I’d take him out to lunch, or to occasions on evenings or weekends. I additionally spent a ton of time learning his work and how it paralleled — and in some ways outlined — the town’s history. I noticed that I had a shaped a scrapbook of his life, a collection of snapshots that appeared the perfect method in to a story a few photographer. It couldn’t be a neat, linear story. That’s not how I reported it, or how I skilled him.
I noticed that I had a shaped a scrapbook of his life, a collection of snapshots that seemed the perfect approach in to a narrative a few photographer.
As for 24 versus 36, the primary draft was 24 exposures. Once I met with my editor, Package Rachlis, he prompt including 12 extra exposures to offer a good broader image of Shulman’s life and work in all of the stuff I needed to miss within the first draft. Package is that rare, fantastic editor who truly encourages his writers to add to, not subtract from, a story.
In your profile, you’re very deliberate about changing views and lenses, which is one thing good photographers do. Was this one thing you discovered from Shulman? Or did you discover inspiration in some other source? (And are you a photographer yourself?)
I’m drawn to stories and profiles that take a look at topics from a number of angles; we’re all complicated, nobody can only be seen in black and white, and to me probably 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 stated that did encourage me, and that has changed the best way I not only take a picture but in addition write, was that images is about capturing mild, not subjects. I really like taking pictures, and I take into consideration what he stated each time I frame one up. It translates to the written phrase as nicely: How does the light we shine on a topic outline who she or he is?
How did you go about deciding the order of those snapshots? Do you begin your stories with an overview?
For larger pieces I strictly abide by the index-card technique. After I’m carried out reporting I begin jotting down every scene I’ve acquired, each description I have, each individual I’ve interviewed, each level I need to make, onto a collection of cards and lay them out on the floor. Which items help one another? What’s the fitting rhythm of lengthy and brief? How does the puzzle match together? I transfer them round so much through the planning process till they feel right after which go at the writing. It makes it so much more manageable. So it’s not an overview, per se, however a moveable feast of vignettes that together have to make a meal.
Did you consider altering lenses as you wrote each scene? What else did you consider when crafting scenes, individually and collectively?
I undoubtedly needed to mix up views and dot the story with totally different storytellers and angles into his life. Over the course of a yr I had extra scenes than might fit, so I decided which might be most representative of a bigger point I used to be making an attempt to make. I selected scenes that could possibly be methods into his character. It was necessary to me to that this not be a hagiography. I needed to portray the contradictions, so I made positive in crafting scenes to not maintain again. I also made positive I used to be telling little tales that would stand on their very own — back to the vignette concept. These have been snapshots, however every needed to move his story forward.
I selected scenes that could possibly be methods into his character.
What informed your selection of the opening image/scene? The ending?
For some cause I all the time know the place or how I’m going to finish a story earlier than I work out how you can start it. I watched him say good night time to his studio one evening, blowing it a kiss, and knew instinctively that it was my ending, in all probability lengthy before I had finished reporting the story. Once I was going by means of my cards, I had one about “Julius on the telephone” that conveyed how in demand he was. I noticed this might be a nice method to introduce him to the uninitiated, and to bookend the story with him being so alive in his studio — which was the guts of his residence — 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, solutions the “so what” question. Did you think of this as your nut graf? Was it arduous to distill this into a couple of hundred words, figuring out the whole lot you knew about Shulman?
I struggled with that paragraph, because as a author (and an editor) I often advocate to do whatever you’ll be able to to not have a “nut graf” in a story. They will so simply feel lazy and pat. At the similar time, this piece verged on stream of consciousness, so I knew I couldn’t be obscure within 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 crammed in the blanks. As for the length, I knew I had a lot more room to get into the nitty-gritty of it all so I didn’t feel obliged to squeeze all the things in there. Just hit the excessive notes.
How many occasions did you interview or interact with Shulman before scripting this? You’ve finished stories with him up to now. At what level did you determine to do this profile?
I’d recognized him for a few years — first, as an editor who used his pictures in tales; later, as a writer. I’d long been obsessed with what I contemplate his most famous photograph of Los Angeles, featuring two young ladies sitting in a midcentury residence that appears suspended in outer area. For an oral history I wrote in 2001, I orchestrated a reunion of the 2 younger ladies, who hadn’t seen each other in 40 years, with everyone who was answerable for the photograph, including Shulman and the house owners of the house. It led me to need to do a more in-depth piece about Shulman — a legendary determine in L.A., still working properly into his ‘90s, who’d never been significantly profiled before. He was of recreation as a result of he liked consideration.
It’s all the time a problem to write down about someone who has been written about a terrific deal. What have been a number of the specific challenges of writing about Shulman? (A few of these challenges you cleverly make obvious in a number of the exposures during which you’re present.)
While he had been written about before, nobody had ever gone deep with him. A lot of the tales have been pretty gushy or superficial. He didn’t actually like going deep, so that was a challenge. I endured, and in addition pushed the individuals around him to talk truthfully about him. I needed to inform the tales that I’d heard, or been current for, however perhaps different writers had prevented. I knew this may be the final profile of him, and I didn’t need to whitewash the onerous elements.
There are a couple of expository/historical past sections, where you pull again from Shulman to provide a timeline of essential moments in L.A. modernism. Why was this necessary to incorporate? 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, however it was necessary to remind readers how interconnected he was to all the great moments in midcentury modernism. It wasn’t that he had a front seat to this — he was in the entrance seat. I needed to provide proper historic context for the story, and it was an excessive amount of for one part.
Both you and filmmaker, Eric Bricker, who filmed a documentary about Shulman referred to as Visual Acoustics, acknowledged that it could possibly be exhausting to get to know “the actual Julius.” He might be quixotic and cantankerous. How did you construct rapport with a guy who it appears was so simply irritated by the fallacious query/remark/word? Have been there any awkward moments that didn’t make it within the story?
I’m positive there have been a number of awkward moments that didn’t make it in, however not because I was avoiding them. I had many to select from! My objective was to make him as snug round me as attainable, which is why I spent a yr on the story. I understand in fact that it’s a luxurious not typically afforded a writer, however it made an enormous distinction. Once I was visiting with him at his residence, I don’t assume I even took out a pocket book until the final month. We just frolicked. I might jot down notes and observations in the evening, stories I’d need him to retell or revisit later once I had a recorder present. Should you’ve obtained the time, you don’t need to be so bogged down sweating by means of note-taking and worrying about your recorder that you simply aren’t truly listening to the individual. A lot of reporting is just listening — or ought to be.
So much of reporting is simply listening — or ought to be.
How lengthy did this take to report and write, and how many sources did you interview?
I reported it over a yr and then spent a month writing and modifying it, in between putting out a month-to-month magazine. I spoke to a few dozen sources, lots of whom didn’t make it into the story. It’s so necessary to forged a wider internet than you’ll need. His daughter, Judy, was forthcoming and extremely useful, which made my job easier. Spending time together with his artwork, and with curators who might converse to it, additionally made an enormous distinction.
Did this story train you anything new about craft or process?
The story was an amazing reminder to me that you must all the time play with type and construction. You need to maintain readers on their toes, so to talk. You need to be nimble as a author. Life is just too brief to write down something boring.
Anything you’d wish to say concerning the craft of this piece, or writing/storytelling normally?
It’s all the time quite superb to me that there are so many people who you’d assume had been profiled, or stories that had been informed, and you then do some digging and understand that’s not the case. Floor profiles, sure, but not a narrative that places all of it into proper context. His was an enormous life, and while it was intimidating going into it — how do I capture 96 years in one story? — fascinated by it as a scrapbook of snapshots made it manageable. Which is a superb reminder that even probably the most daunting challenge or objective may be damaged right down to its important pieces.