I recently re-visited Eric Bricker’s documentary: Visual Acoustics – The Modernism of Julius Shulman. It was my fifth viewing. Do whatever is legally necessary to see this portrait of one man’s artistic contribution and advancement of architecture.
Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, Bricker’s film reveals Shulman as a pivotal figure in our appreciation of North America’s East Coast mid-century design furnace. Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, Raphael Soriano and Frank Lloyd-Wright were among the luminaries who called upon Shulman’s grand photographic skills.
I first met Shulman while working in Los Angeles in the mid-’90s. I knew of his reputation that went beyond merely capturing fine images….he captivated audiences who usually considered architecture as esoteric.
I knew Shulman would make the subject of a terrific documentary but the tyranny of distance got the better of me. The idea faded until I saw Bricker’s work. When I'm not shooting stills on commission or for HyattGallery Fine Art Images I'm working on moving images, so I’m pleased Bricker and Shulman collaborated. And just in time. Shulman passed away in 2009 aged 99, shortly after completion of the film.
We became friends after I photographed him in at an exhibition of his work. After I sent him a print, he said that his wife considered it a definitive portrait. I’m not so sure it was ‘definitive’, but it was typical of Shulman’s generosity of spirit.
I liked him very much. It was hard not to fall for his feistiness and spirit. He was self-promotional and yet self-effacing with a roguish charm. He was 89 going on 59 when we met and still snow-skiing and photographing, although at a slower speed in both instances. He lugged his camera gear around in a weathered brown leather bag. I suspect he did so as not to draw attention to himself and thereby avoid being the target of muggers.
In the film though it’s a different story. Shulman laps up the attention and reminisces with anyone and everyone who loves an era that he distilled like the finest cognac.
We kept in touch exchanging books and notes. Shulman recalled how he was invited by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects to attend its national conference in Perth in 1959. He laughed as he recounted to me how his invitation came with the request to pay his own flights and accommodation. He regretted never visiting Australia.
Shulman’s charming braggadocio on camera is really an infectious, boy-‘ish’ energy that characterized his outlook on life. One of the film’s poignant moments is Shulman’s own reflection in the plate glass window while returning to the place of perhaps his most famous image – the Stahl House (1960) by Pierre Konig. The young woman in his original photograph seated in the glassy corner high above Los Angeles at dusk is long gone but the memory remains strong.
As the documentary’s title implies....there’s a huge resonance in this man’s work. More than enough to have him seated high in the pantheon of 20th century photography. Or watch Bricker's documentary just for Shulman's humanity and life force.