Grade A-: 'Visual Acoustics' celebrates the life of Shulman
Although the late Julius Shulman might not be a household name in America, his photography has probably been sitting on your or your parents' coffee table at some point during the past 50 years.
Throughout his career, Shulman, who died in July at 98, helped capture the beautiful simplicity and elegance of midcentury modern homes — and helped turn the architects with whom he worked into international stars.
"Early on, his architectural clients realized that they couldn't pick up a house and take it on a tour to show what they had done," says Eric Bricker, who directed "Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman," which opens today at the Regal Arbor. "But they began to understand that photographic images could spread the word worldwide. Julius was the one they turned to."
Perhaps Shulman's most famous photograph is one of the Stahl House, also known as "Case Study #22," which has been the inspiration for modern architecture around the world and helped define the 20th-century image of Los Angeles.
"There, hovering almost weightlessly above the bright lights of Los Angeles, spread out like a carpet below, is an elegant, light, economical and transparent enclosure whose apparent simplicity belies the rigorous process of investigation that made it possible," wrote architect Norman Foster.
As Foster knew, the image of the Stahl House, designed by Pierre Koenig, didn't just come into being. Shulman's great insight was recognizing that the linear lines of the house's dramatic overhang were in perfect harmony with the street grids of Los Angeles below.
And, as watchers of "Visual Acoustics" will learn, Shulman used time-lapse photography to capture the twinkling, 1960 streetscape, making the image far more than an effortless snapshot.
Shulman was closely associated with architect Richard Neutra, who grew up in Vienna, Austria, and came to the United States in the 1920s, where he became known as the top architect for a new International Style of modernism.
Neutra, who spotted Shulman's keen eye for illuminating architectural drama, worked with the photographer until his death in 1970.
As mass-market magazines in the 1950s and early '60s began to recognize the importance of modernism's emergence, Shulman became one of the leading purveyors of the "Southern California lifestyle" for publications such as Life, Look, Time, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, and House and Garden.
Over the years, he took thousands of photographs of the projects of nearly every top modern architect in America, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Loewy, Gregory Ain, Albert Frey, Paul Laszlo, Raphael Soriano, John Lautner and Craig Ellwood. His archives of more than 250,000 negatives and contact prints, which were transferred to the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and Humanities in the early 2000s, have become a major source for the scholars of architectural modernism, with retrospective exhibitions being held worldwide.
In "Visual Acoustics," Bricker, who lives in Austin, pays homage to Shulman's life with stunning cinematography and timely insights. And his movie provides context for the renewed enthusiasm in America for modern architecture.
Bricker is scheduled to hold question-and-answer sessions after the 7:50 p.m. shows today and Saturday, and after the 2:50 p.m. show on Sunday.
(Portions of this review were printed during the Austin Film Festival, where "Visual Acoustics" won the audience award for best documentary feature. It also won the audience award for best documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the grand jury prize for best documentary at the Lone Star Film Festival and the prize for outstanding achievement in documentary filmmaking at the Newport Beach Film Festival.)
Rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes. Theater: Arbor.