Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on July 22, 2010
Photographer Julius Shulman may not be a household name but you’ve probably seen his work or at least its influence in Hollywood films. Shulman spent much of his life photographing architectural wonders in Los Angeles and his photos of private homes, office buildings and public structures helped shape the way that we all see the “City of Angels.”
In the documentary Visual Acoustics (2008) director Eric Bricker celebrates the career of photographer Julius Shulman and it’s an interesting and informative look at the man and his work. Shulman was born in New York and grew up on a Connecticut farm, but when his family moved to Los Angeles in 1923 he began to photograph the city as it was transforming into the modern megalopolis that we know today. In the ’30s Shulman started collaborating with architect Richard Neutra and his photographs were used to promote Neutra’s ideas about modern design. Both men believed that modern architecture should be compatible with our natural landscape and Shulman’s photos exemplified this philosophy. Over time Schulman become a great environmentalist as well as a great photographer and both of his passions are evident in his work. Although his photographs were often staged like a film set using props that he brought from home; Schulman made great use of the landscape and natural light. Structures never seem to overshadow the environment they were placed in and Shulman’s photographs highlight this harmony and balance with nature. The public became familiar with his pictures in popular shelter magazines such as Sunset and Good Housekeeping but he gained international recognition when his work appeared in publications like Architectural Digest and Arts & Architecture.
Top: Young Julius Shulman with architect Richard Neutra
Director Eric Bricker obviously adores his subject and it’s not hard to understand why. At the time that Visual Acoustics was made, Julius Schulman was 93 years old and his sense of humor; healthy ego and bright mind were still working at full capacity. It’s easy to imagine Shulman as a young man when he tells stories about his working relationship with architectural luminaries such as Frank Lloyd Wright. Throughout the film Shulman discusses his work with friends and family members who also offer their own insights about the man and his iconic photographs. But the documentary mainly relies on the opinions of other architects and designers to explain the history and importance of Shulman’s work while actor Dustin Hoffman narrates.
Visual Acoustics will probably appeal to anyone interested in photography, design and architecture but the film also explores Jules Shulman’s lifelong relationship with the city of Los Angeles. It offers potential viewers an intimate look at the Hollywood Hills and highlights many of the Los Angeles homes featured in Shulman’s photos, which can also seen in popular movies such as Body Double (Brian De Palma; 1984), Lethal Weapon 2 (Richard Donner; 1989), The Big Lebowski (Joel & Ethan Coen; 1998), etc.
Bottom: Elder Julius Shulman with his assistant.
The documentary doesn’t offer much insight into Shulman’s personal life and that’s one of its biggest failings. Julius Shulman was obviously somewhat of a private man who is very focused on his work. It’s easy to assume that the director probably had trouble getting him to talk openly about his family and friends, but that problem could have easily been solved by using Dustin Hoffman’s narration to fill in some gaps. And besides Shulman’s actual photographs, Visual Acoustics lacks structure and visual appeal. The documentary just isn’t as dynamic as its subject and I found that somewhat disappointing, but it’s hard to fault its intention. Director Eric Bricker should be complimented for shining a light on one of America’s greatest photographers and introducing a new audience to the beauty and brilliance of modern architecture.
Visual Acoustics has a strong element of nostalgia running through it that makes one long for the Los Angeles of the 1940s-1960s as seen in Julius Shulman’s wonderful photographs. He managed to capture the zeitgeist of modern life at a time when the world appeared to be incredibly glamorous and full of possibility. Throughout the documentary Shulman seems wistful about the past and aches for a future that he knows he will never see. It’s hard not to be moved as we watch him pack up his photo archives before they are sent away to a museum to be analyzed and enjoyed by future generations. Jules Shulman died in 2008 at age 98 but his legacy lives on. Visual Acoustics was recently released on DVD and is available for instant viewing on Netflix.
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