Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman

“I was ordained to become a photographer. I was destined.” Looking back on his long career, Julius Shulman sounds fulfilled. And his work — at least the best known work, images of modernist architecture — has profoundly affected the world around him, a world that is by definition concerned with the effects of art and work. Indeed, this is one focus of the documentary, Visual Acoustics: the self-referential, circular-seeming interrelationships between architecture and architectural photography, commercial and aesthetic forms. Within this knot of art and influence, Shulman’s photos serve as simultaneous points of departure and return.

This knot is mutually dependent and self-perpetuating by definition. Just listen to narrator Dustin Hoffman, introducing the film’s focus: “Julius Shulman has defined the way we look at modernism. First focusing his lens upon architecture in the 1930s, Julius continues to document the evolution of built environments and architectural forms today.” Such efforts to describe the multiple dimensions of Shulman’s work hint at the essential complexity of that work. Eric Bricker’s documentary demonstrates repeatedly its own dilemma, how to represent the specific attributes and nuances of one format in another format.

At some level, this dilemma is best resolved by the simplest device: when Visual Acoustics shows Shulman’s photos, they speak well for themselves. The question at the center of the film and, to an extent, Shulman’s photography, has to do with the relationship between text and context, at once utterly abstract and undeniably material. Shulman’s life story takes on a particular shape here, described by scholars and artists and his daughter too. So, Thomas Hines, Professor History and Architecture at UCLA, pronounces, “I think it’s significant that Julius, after being born in Brooklyn and before coming to the sort of city of Los Angeles, lived on a farm in Connecticut.” Shulman (who died in July of this year) appears at his own Los Angeles home, amid trees and sky and what he calls a “mishmash” of every conceivable plant, apparently unplanned and tangled.

Shulman helps you to understand what the film can’t convey (“Orange tree, hmmm, that is fragrant”) as he walks you through his yard. This environment, so unlike the sharp angles and stark spaces that appear in his most famous photos, is part respite and part model for life: “I don’t have to have a physical church,” he says, “What can be more beautiful than the church in which you’re surrounded totally by nature? This is my god.” Indeed, as the film points out briefly, Shulman was early on a dedicated environmentalist (as he was “disgusted with what was happening to his Los Angeles”). Old TV interviews here reveal his interest in preserving “nature” and fighting pollution, both visual and chemical.

But, as crucial as this interest may have been for Shulman, the film focuses most intently on his photos of buildings. These images — most famously one-point perspective shots of structures designed by Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Frank Gehry — indicate how the photographer “defined modernism.” They also show the ways that Shulman is affected by and affects what he sees. His art is a mix of his reactions and perspectives, how he sees. Unable to delineate this process, the film offers some biographical information (he spent seven years in college, then quit: “I woke up early in the morning at 3 o’clock and said, ‘Wait a minute, what am I doing here?'”), some interpretation (architectural writer Frances Anderton observes, “It seems as if his early life was about muddling along until he found that niche for himself”), and some unsurprising metaphor (his daughter Judy McKee says, “I think that’s a beautiful way of thinking of my dad and Los Angeles as siblings: they really did grow up together”).

Visual Acoustics itself can feel something like a “mishmash.” It submits a usual-seeming array of talking heads, scholars, colleagues, and fans (Kelly Lynch and her husband Mitch Glazer, owners of a home Shulman photographed). Their attempts to describe what Shulman does are hit and miss, alternately academic or allusive, precise or fuzzy. Tom Ford sets the celebrated Case Study House #22 in a political and historical context, observing, “We were building rockets to go to the moon and planning the colonization of Mars. The popular zeitgeist is caught perfectly in that picture.” Ed Ruscha, who knows something about gas stations, says over an image of Shulman’s “Mobil Station,” that “His pictures have this base of romance to them. His work represents a certain ideal that happened years ago and yet it helped create the essence and ethos of this city.”

This notion of romance — elusive and resonant — may be the most productive way to think about the relationship between Shulman’s photos and their architectural objects. As Shulman tells a seminar late in the film, “The camera is the least important element in photography.” Appreciating that seeing is an emotional, political, and deeply social activity, Shulman makes that activity visible to the rest of us.

RATING 6 / 10