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10.02.2009
Review> Shulman's Joy
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman
Shulman with Richard Neutra at the Tremaine House in Los Angeles in 1947.
Courtesy Arthouse Films

For anyone who was never graced by the presence and persona of Julius Shulman, Eric Bricker’s documentary film Visual Acoustics gives a precious and intimate entry into the life, work, and philosophy of one of the greatest photographers of modern architecture, who died this summer at the age of 98.

The film will certainly stir up fond memories for those who knew “Uncle Julius.” It reveals him as a master of the art of living, radiating a lightness of being and appreciation for the people and environment around him. It also reveals him as a stubborn and demanding artist who as a young man “took corrections” from Neutra and Schindler and was capable of giving just as harsh corrections to novices encountered on his projects or even on the filmmakers’ own shoot.

Visual Acoustics tells several stories in parallel—of Julius Shulman the humanist, artist, activist, and image-maker, and of the modern movement and Shulman’s major place in that history. The film cycles through the chapters of his life, from his youth on a Connecticut farm to his growing up, camera in hand, at the same time as the city of Los Angeles. It chronicles Shulman finding his calling with the making of a photo of an early Neutra house, and the world of collaborations to follow.

Shulman’s chronology is interwoven with that of the history and ambition of the European modern movement and the rise of California modernism through animated “visual symphonies,” designed by New York motion graphics specialists Trollback + Company. Incorporating Shulman’s images, historical photos, and text, the animation work is subtle in its attempt to formally weave image to image, focusing our attention on the compositional strength and dynamism of Shulman’s photos. Lines merge with lines, or emerge as webs to reveal the perspectival structure of both image and architecture.

This subtle play is jarringly interrupted with a brief series of Monty Python-esque collages used to wittily present historical facts about the modern movement, potentially undercutting the historical credibility of the content. Fortunately, this comic interlude is counterbalanced by poignant interviews with scholars and curators (Thomas Hines and Joseph Rosa), architect clients (Mark Lee and Frank Gehry), and friends and fans (Ed Ruscha and Tom Ford) articulating the historical relevance of specific images, the architecture photographed, and the architect-collaborators.

To complement the architectural history lessons, the film gives us personal stories about Shulman, the architects, and their architecture through social calls to the owners of several photographed houses. Witnessing these visits, it is clear that Shulman’s photographs were vital in restoring Neutra’s Miller House and others to their original condition. But we also witness the ongoing relationships Shulman maintained with the original or subsequent owners of the houses he photographed.

Bricker, who befriended Shulman over the course of several years prior to making the film, takes us into the inner sanctum of Shulman’s Raphael Soriano–designed studio. Here we are given insight to both the quality of space in which he worked, the personal relationships with all those around him—his daughter, gallerists, and work associates—and the volume of images produced over his career. The man and his glass treasure-trove of images impressed Bricker at their first meeting, and in his film we see this archive being prepared for its future life in the Getty Foundation Archives. But most of all, it is this last-minute glimpse of Shulman’s joie de vivre that is the ultimate strength and value of Bricker’s film.

The film opens on October 9 in New York and October 16 in LA with other openings and screenings throughout the fall. On Monday, Open House New York is hosting a fundraiser at the Cooper Union, with a screening of the film introduced by the director and a reception to follow.

A version of this article appeared in AN 09.30.2009_CA.

Beth Weinstein

Beth Weinstein is founder of the New York–based design studio Architecture Agency.