A documentary screening at Dwell on Design zooms in for a close-up on 98-year-old architectural photographer Julius Shulman and his iconic images that came to define modernism and Los Angeles with a single click of a shutter.
After a chance meeting with the captivating Shulman, filmmaker Eric Bricker set to work directing the first feature-length documentary on the national treasure: Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman. Narrated by Dustin Hoffman and starring a litany of design stars—architect Frank Gehry, designer Tom Ford, artist Ed Ruscha, publisher Benedikt Taschen, and Dwell's own LA editor Frances Anderton—the film was the winner of the 2009 Palm Springs International Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature. It even got rave reviews from master lenser Shulman himself (he has seen the film four times, and says he never tires of it). Visual Acoustics will screen at this year's Dwell on Design: A Night at the Movies on Saturday, June 27, at the Geffen Contemporary in downtown Los Angeles, followed by a Q&A with Bricker himself. In the meantime, we caught up with Bricker at his home in Austin for a few Q&As of our own.
You attended Indiana University and Cal State Long Beach focusing on theater with the intention of acting, so how did you come to make a documentary about an architectural photographer?
When I ended up in Los Angeles I quickly realized that acting was not for me. I realized I wanted to make my own films. I was about 25 at that point and so I went into the family trade of art consultation, the whole idea being that someday I'd get myself into a position to make my own films. And through that, I met Julius. His next-door neighbor owned a building on Orange Street, which is my favorite street in LA. I called her because I wanted to rent a unit in her apartment building but she didn't have any vacancies, so I invited her over to meet me and my fiancée. I was hoping to get moved up on her list. She is an amazing person, she's been Julius' next-door neighbor since the '50s—they share a driveway. We just started talking, and I needed some black and white photography of 1930s San Francisco for a project. I don't know how it got thrown out there, but she said, "Why don't you call my neighbor, his name is Julius Shulman." And she gave me his telephone number, and I called him, and like he does, even today, he answered and said, "Julius Shulman." And I told him what I needed and he said, "Sure, come on up!"
Wait, so you didn't know who he was? Had you seen his work?
You know, it was one of those things. Take Case Study House N0. 22, like many people in the world, I'd seen it but I didn't know who did it or what it was, I'd just seen the image. So it was great, it was this double whammy. It was the photography and then it was the man behind the photography. He reminds me most of my maternal grandfather, and we hit it off and became really good friends. I would just go up there and enjoy talking with him and learning from him and just hanging out. I didn't live all that far from him so I spent quite a bit of time up there. And it was in 2001 I came up with the idea for the film and I presented it to him—and I remember my resolution for 2002 was to make this film so I went out and got a 3-Chip camera—and I went up there and said, "Okay, Julius, who do I talk to about Schindler? Who do I talk to about Neutra?" And he would start sending me out to these people. So I started going around and interviewing these people.
That's amazing. So you were dispatched on this architectural treasure hunt of LA to find all these famous people and you'd be like, Hey, Julius Shulman sent me.
It was a whole side of LA that was new to me, and now the architecture and design world is the side of LA that resonates the most for me. Frances Anderton talked about how people try to compare New York and LA but you can't compare them because New York is primarily about public space and Los Angeles primarily domestic space, it's this garden city. So going to these houses and meeting these people and starting to see this world, I started to develop a different connection to Los Angeles and this greater appreciation for the city.
Do you think you made the film for someone like the person you were to begin with, to introduce people to this world, or for more of the modernist fanatics out there?
Good question. I made the movie for the built-in, niche, die-hard audience, and then I made it for everyone else. I really wanted to do the right thing because this wasn't really my native territory. These photographs had to be treated with care and respect and I wanted to tell the right story. With the modern aesthetic, it's quite fetishized now, there's such a resurgence in popularity and such a greater awareness, and I wanted people to have the opportunity to see these minds, these designers and architects, and to see the intent behind the work. So that was one thing I wanted to get onscreen. And the second thing is that I wanted people to get to know Julius. I always say he's a national treasure and he's such an incredible ambassador to modernism. And I thought that if people could get to know him, they'd fall in love with him and they'd want to know more about him or the houses or furniture or photography.
I've also heard that he can be a bit of, shall we say, a 'firecracker.' I'm sure he also had his own opinions about how to make the film?
He is tough to figure out sometimes. He is an enigma. But he has a really good sense of people. And that's why a lot of times if it's just not agreeing with him, he will let you know. So that's the firecracker side of things. But the other side is that when he trusts people he'll open up the world to them, his world. I was quite amazed that I proposed this documentary and this thing took a long time and I never questioned his trust in me. But here's what's so amazing about him: Neither Julius nor his daughter Judy ever asked what I was "up to" all those years that it took to complete the film.
Well, it's an incredible challenge for any filmmaker to make a film about an iconic imagemaker, and you had to do it for your first film!
I had a lot of great help. Dustin Hoffman did the narration. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot two sequences for us, and I had a very experienced producer, Babette Zilch, who came out of the commercial world, and a lot of great camera people, and we had a company called Tröllback out of New York who handled the animation. My producer met one of the creative directors from Tröllback out at a restaurant in New York, and word got back to Jakob Tröllback, who is Swedish and a huge fan of Julius, and of course modernism. So they were on board pretty early, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. The danger was that you can do a million things a million different ways, but when it came down to it, we wanted to approach the animated sequences and the photography in a very minimal fashion. We always treated it with reverence and respect.
And isn't a big part of the film showing how all these photos—his archives—were moved to the Getty?
The Getty is such an amazing resource and gift to the world. They are open for the public for anyone to go there and see these images. So once they did acquire these archives they were completely supportive and helped me with some of the scans from the transparencies. In terms of picking the photos, it took years. I remember one day I was up there, Benedikt Taschen had been up there for two weeks straight, selecting images for Modernism Rediscovered II and that was really a learning experience to watch him and his selection process. He has an incredible eye and I learned a lot from what he was picking and what he was leaving, too.
Did you learn anything from Julius himself about photography?
I did, and he doesn't write a lot about the technical aspects of photography. Even in the film he says: "The camera is the least important part of photography." What I learned from Julius, the biggest thing, is the importance of the architecture's relationship to its environment. It all starts there. He won't just show up on site and whip out his camera. He'll really understand the architect's intent and why it's placed where it's placed, and he'll look for the optimal angles. With Julius, it comes down to fundamentals. He doesn't even use a light meter. Benedikt Taschen calls him 'One-Shot Shulman.' He's known for showing up, and then he just walks around, and he'll say, "Okay we're gonna do two compositions, one here, one there, this is 2 o'clock, this one's 4 o'clock, let's go eat lunch." And with his photography, it's pretty much the way he lives his life: It's all very simple. I think that's one of the things that people are reacting to in the film. At the opening of the film he's sitting in his garden and he says, "What more could a man need?" And he's being really serious. He was never chasing fame or fortune, he was just doing something he loved to do.
What about the architecture itself? Is he happy about the resurgence of modernism that you talked about before, and does he know that he's contributed to it?
He's extremely happy about what's happening with architecture, that there's a greater public awareness and appreciation of it. There's a whole thing about him developing new talent. You know, he really was a talent scout, and discovered all these new architects. He would travel around the interior of the country and after he came home from completing the assignment, he'd reach into his bag and say, "Oh, and look at what else I found." He would shop this around to the different publishers. He's always been about championing new talent. And he still is. He always says, "It never ends." And he's thrilled by it.
Besides his championing of modernism, also the way he shoots it—using people in the photos, showing real houses with real furniture—reminds me a lot of Dwell's way of looking at homes. Does he ever talk about Dwell as being in line with his philosophy?
Yes. I had actually been introduced to Dwell by Julius. And we've sat a number of time looking at other magazines and sometimes he'll go off, saying, "Why is the camera there? What are they doing? What is that advertisement about?" With Dwell he's always been a supporter.
Tell me about the name of the film—Visual Acoustics—because it seems to fit really well but I don't know where it came from.
The title came from Julius. I had a bunch of people on this for a year and we could not come up with a title. Julius was insistent that we name it Visual Acoustics. He coined this term when he was photographing the Bradbury Building—that's one of his top buildings in Los Angeles, he loves that building. He said, "This building has visual acoustics." So he came up with that phrase back in the 70s I believe, but he also said it when he was shooting Disney Concert Hall, while we were shooting him shooting Disney Hall. He said it that day: "I can make a moving picture out of a still picture, I use what's called visual acoustics"—and it's in the film.
What can I say about Julius is that he's right 99.3% of the time. And so there's times I'm with him and I say, "Oh man, what is he talking about, this guy's so out of touch," but then he'll end up being right. And Julius kept saying: "Call it Visual Acoustics, dammit, they'll love it!" It really is literally 99.3% of the time that he's right.
View the trailer for Visual Acoustics below, or visit juliusshulmanfilm.com for more information about the film. You can see Visual Acoustics and the documentary The Greening of Southie at Dwell on Design's A Night at the Movies by purchasing a Dwell Conference Plus ticket or the Saturday Evening Special Event ticket. Register at dwellondesign.com.
Production photos by Aiken Weiss and Michelle Oliver