Modern Love


Left: Julius Shulman, Spencer Residence—Richard O. Spencer, 1950, color photograph. Right: Julius Shulman, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—Frank Lloyd Wright, 1964, color photograph.

MODERN ARCHITECTURE found its greatest proponent not among its designers and manifestoists, but in a twenty-five-year-old college dropout with a penchant for pictures. Or at least so goes the claim of Eric Bricker’s directorial debut, Visual Acoustics (2009), a documentary portrait of the architectural photographer Julius Shulman. In 1936, Shulman, wholly ignorant of anything to do with architecture, accompanied a draftsman from Richard Neutra’s office on a visit to Neutra’s recently completed Kun residence in Hollywood. Shulman sent his snaps to the architect and unwittingly jump-started a career in architectural photography that would continue—suspended only during the years of postmodernism’s ascendance (a movement Shulman despised)—until his death this past July at the age of ninety-eight.

Guided by Neutra and his Los Angeles associates (including his close friend Rudolph Schindler, who had similarly found his way westward from Vienna to work at Taliesen), Shulman became closely associated with modernism’s Southern California strain, whose protagonists included Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, and Albert Frey. Before descending into tedious encomium, the film, dryly narrated by Dustin Hoffman, offers a few pertinent observations into Shulman’s creative relationship with Neutra that effectively encapsulate the story of California modernism. Architect Michael Webb explains that Neutra’s quick adoption of Shulman as his personal photographer was pure business strategy, the savvy decision of a “terrific self-promoter.” Under Neutra’s guidance, Shulman developed a set of photographic techniques tailored to the representation of modern buildings. In the film, an impossibly sharp ninety-three-year old Shulman recounts the architect’s disappointment with the budding photographer’s even and unnatural illumination of perpendicular walls (an early effort), before he learned to balance artificial and natural illumination, an effect suggestive of a modern interior coextensive with the surrounding landscape. “That’s God,” credits Shulman while pointing a finger to a sun-drenched exterior wall; “This is Julius,” he says, referring to a strobe-lit fireplace reproduced in Taschen’s oversize, three-volume edition devoted to his life’s work.

The film also records Neutra and Shulman’s tiffs: Neutra’s insistence, increasingly to Shulman’s irritation, on waving eucalyptus branches in front of the camera lens to give the appearance of a view opening from a grove of trees, or Shulman’s carload of household items with which he would furnish Neutra’s deliberately arid interiors. The latter technique—the constructed appearance of modern living for which Shulman became known—helped feed a growing appetite for modern architecture in consumer publications and home and gardening magazines. Shulman made modernism not only palatable but chic. Breaking with the tradition of presenting the building as an isolated object, Shulman highlighted the building’s relationship to its site and, most important, populated his photographs with fashionable inhabitants. Shulman’s modernism was, to take a cue from Columbia University’s Kazys Varnelis summation of Southern California modernism, “less . . . a societal utopia, and more . . . a personal utopia.”

Trailer for Eric Bricker’s Visual Acoustics (2009).

It is this utopia that Visual Acoustic’s star-studded cast giddily rediscovers, whether it’s Tom Ford describing the “optimism” of the modernist moment in tones of breathless 1-900-number ecstasy, actress Kelly Lynch calling Shulman a “rock star” (twice, for the nonagenarian’s failing ears) and enthusing over the parties she’s hosted in her experimental John Lautner house, or Benedikt Taschen promising Shulman a monograph “bigger, of course,” than Taschen’s titles on Nobuyoshi Araki and Leni Riefenstahl. Like the book publishers and art directors the film follows (the Hollywood cinematographer Dante Spinotti re-creates an iconic Shulman photograph in a self-referential, dolly-driven sequence), Visual Acoustics, too, is fascinated more with the image of this architecture than with the buildings themselves. It’s an attitude that doesn’t perhaps do justice to its subject: a photographer who genuinely loved architecture and who, in a telling moment, contrasts his work with that of the architects he admires. Discussing the photography profession with the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, the usually outsize Shulman deprecates: “It’s a good business—let the architects do all the heavy work, and we come in and take pictures.”

Michael Wang

Visual Acoustics opens October 9 in New York at Cinema Village and October 16 in Los Angeles at Landmark Nuart.