By: Sheri Linden
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman
Arthouse Films, Releases Oct. 9 in New York and Oct. 16 in Los Angeles
A glass box of a room juts into the Los Angeles night; within it, two young women converse, unconcerned with the glittering grid of city lights beneath them. This striking image became famous not only because of its composition but because of its enduring resonance as an emblem of California modernism.
The photograph of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 in the Hollywood Hills (also known as the Stahl House) was taken in 1960 by Julius Shulman, who at that point had already been documenting modernist architecture for a quarter of a century. (Shulman died this past July at the age of 98.) His work, now housed at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, propelled architectural photography into the realm of fine art.
As director Eric Bricker shows in Visual Acoustics, a lively and engaging documentary portrait, the photographer was a key creative force in immortalizing some of the most imaginative design achievements of the 20th century. Buildings don’t necessarily last, but images do. Because many important modernist works are private homes, only the privileged few have direct access to the interiors; everyone else experiences them through photos. The images have a practical function, too. Many modernist marvels have fallen into disrepair or have been compromised by renovations and additions. Bricker’s film makes clear that the celebrated recent restoration of Richard Neutra’s 1946 Kaufmann House in Palm Springs relied in large part on Shulman’s vintage photographs.
In its fast-moving 83 minutes, Visual Acoustics pays tribute to the keen talent, charm and humor of a man who says he was “ordained” and “destined” to be a photographer. This is a story of the California spirit. Shulman’s daughter, Judy McKee, astutely notes that her father and the city of Los Angeles are siblings, having grown up together. The photographer’s personal history is only barely sketched in, but the details the film provides are salient. Born in Brooklyn, Shulman spent a good part of his childhood in rural Connecticut—which instilled in him a lifelong affinity for nature—before his family moved to Los Angeles in 1920. Until he found his calling as an architectural photographer, he turned his lens on the young city’s landscape and people, as well as on its nascent skyline.
It was in 1936, while photographing a house by Neutra, that Shulman’s true career began. Through the émigré architect he met other modernists, including R.M. Schindler, whose “wonderful correction” of Shulman’s lighting of an interior guided him away from floodlights and toward natural lighting, helping to define the photographer’s style. He became a leading interpreter of the work of Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, Albert Frey and E. Stewart Williams. He brought emerging talent to the attention of magazine editors and chronicled the work of masters such as Frank Lloyd Wright and John Lautner.
In a crucial sense, Shulman was an art director, often carting his own furniture to photo shoots, to the chagrin of the equally strong-willed Neutra. His sharp eye for perspective and his interior arrangements fueled a postwar ideal indelibly linked to Los Angeles and, inescapably, to movie imagery of the city. It’s not surprising that young architects use Shulman’s photos as design shorthand and a source of inspiration.
Bricker’s inspired documentary gives a sprightly account of of art and design history through stylish animated graphics, insightful interviews and exuberant narration by Dustin Hoffman. At times, one wishes the film slowed down a bit to linger on the exquisite photos, but in its intimate footage of Shulman, Visual Acoustics never errs. We get his enthusiasm and authority at the tripod, his delight in finding an orange tree in bloom, his tête-à-tête over f-stops with esteemed cinematographer Dante Spinotti. When, at a retrospective exhibit of Mexican architect Abraham Zabludovsky’s work, Shulman places his hand on the surface of a life-size photograph of the man, it’s as if he is communing with a deceased friend. A more eloquent depiction of the photograph as a conduit of life would be hard to imagine.