Without photos, even a perfect work of architecture can feel incomplete: it's a mute poet, a star without her close-up. Visual Acoustics, a new documentary about the late Julius Shulman, shows how one photographer not only captured and popularized but also helped create American modernism over the course of his 70-year career.


Julius Shulman, from Visual Acoustics, 2009. Copyright Aiken Weiss. Courtesy of Arthouse Films


Shulman died last July at the age of 98, making Eric Bricker's film an elegy of sorts. It's a fond portrait of a photographer whose images helped immortalize the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolf Schindler, and John Lautner, among others; like art publishers Taschen and the Getty Center, which exhibited the archives it acquired from Shulman in 2005,Visual Acoustics cements the reputation of a man who was himself a preserver of architectural legacies.
 
Born in Brooklyn in 1910, Shulman moved to Southern California as a teenager. His gifts were evident from a young age—one of his early photos, of the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles, won a national photography competition—but it took him awhile to find his muse. On a whim, he photographed a Richard Neutra house in 1936 and sent the prints to the architect. "Within a week, I was a photographer," he recalls in the film. Neutra helped Shulman develop an eye for architecture, but the relationship cut both ways. Shulman hauled in his own furniture to give his shots of Neutra's houses a more lived-in feel; even if Neutra didn't always agree with his stage-dressing, as a chuckling Shulman relates in the film, the architect took credit for it when he liked the results.

Shortly after World War II, Shulman was doing commissions for the country's top architects. He wowed Frank Lloyd Wright with his photos of Taliesin West and introduced the world to Lautner's 1961 "Chemosphere" house in the pages of Life. Shulman's magazine-friendly imagery was perfect for a postwar era in which the Southern California lifestyle seduced America with its apparent ease and glamour. "You can practically hear the Sinatra tunes wafting in the air and the ice clinking in cocktail glasses," Newsweek wrote of his work. (CHEMOSPHERE HOUSE, 1960. COPYRIGHT J PAUL GETTY TRUST)

Bricker films Shulman reuniting with old friends, like Frank Gehry, and the couple that restored Neutra's 1946 Kaufmann House using photos Shulman had printed for them. Visual Acoustics (which is narrated by Dustin Hoffman) spends a generous amount of time discussing the architects whose work he shot, but breezes through an analysis of what differentiates a Shulman from, say, an Ezra Stoller or a Hedric-Blessing; enthusiasts will have to settle for one talking head's observation that while those photographers used elevation and light effects, respectively, to bring buildings to life, Shulman mastered a one-point perspective that almost physically draws the viewer into the image.

If Shulman has a masterpiece, it's his 1960 photograph of Pierre Koenig's Case Study #22, a glass-walled house overlooking Los Angeles. In a composition that's pure velocity, the house's living room seems to hang in the night air. It's a perfect encapsulation of mid-century America at its most stylish and confident-or oblivious, take your pick.

the film, cinematographer Dante Spinotti says that he and Miami Vice director Michael Mann once shot a scene at the house in an attempt to reproduce the photo's effect. Deciding he'd failed, Mann never used the footage. (LEFT: SHULMAN AND NEUTRA. COPYRIGHT J PAUL GETTY TRUST)

Presumably at Bricker's request, Spinotti lays down some dolly track and gives it another shot-this time, with Shulman pacing the room. Spinotti's second go probably doesn't get any closer to the original image, to crystallizing a moment in time and space, than the first one. But it does do something else. As an ancient Shulman peers through the glass, the camera stalking him with its silky movements, it tells the story of his photo, much like Shulman's photo told the story of Koenig's building and the landscape beyond it. With Shulman no longer around to narrate, it's a poignant scene worth holding onto.


Visual Acoustics opens tonight, October 9, at Cinema Village and October 16 in Los Angeles at Nuart Theater.