Modernisme Majestueux


Maybe it was those years spent living in southern California or perhaps it was simply my appreciation for clean, sleek, beautiful lines that comprised the whole of modernist photographer Julius Shulman’s career, but as someone recently noted, “Once you have seen his images, they will be engrained in your head forever.”

Think Case Study House #22, Los Angeles, 1960 (above) for example. Shulman’s atmospheric image of two young women in white cocktail frocks, sitting in the corner of a flat-roofed, glass-walled house designed by Pierre Koenig, perched precariously in the Hollywood Hills atop the twinkling lights of L.A. at dusk, the most reprinted of his photos and viewed as a metaphor for L.A. itself. The result is a photograph that is both time-specific and timeless. With its scenic setting, romantic sensibility and strong perspective, it seems to capture the best of modernism.


Or Kaufmann House, Palm Springs, 1947 (the second most reprinted), a glimpse of the Neutra house, shaped like a cross with walls of glass and rock, a sumptuous pool, and a view over the desert to the mountains.


In 1999, Eric Bricker, working in L.A. as an art consultant, was tracking down some archival prints when he met Shulman, at that time a spry 89-year-old. Bricker recalls walking into Shulman’s studio – “a glass-walled treasure vault filled with photos, books, magazines, and sculptures” – and meeting the man who reminded him of his grandfather and would open a door to a Los Angeles that he did not know existed. The film that Bricker made (Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman) with the help of a very talented team is a terrific, nuanced exploration of the interplay of craft, aesthetic, history, and personality.


The personality of a still-vibrant, hail-fellow-well-met Shulman, filmed at the age of 98 (Shulman died earlier this year), sets the tone of Visual Acoustics, as he walks (very slowly) and talks us through the decisive moments of his extraordinary career. We learn, from an assortment of talking heads, the context and significance of Shulman’s visual style and photographic oeuvre: his understanding of shifting light, his use of perspective, the perfect props and people, and his genius for distilling a building’s architectural line.


Some of the more amusing anecdotes come from the clashes that were absolutely inevitable when two “egocentric” professionals go toe to toe in high-stakes collaborations – the architect who hires the photographer to transmit his work to the world and the photographer with his own ideas of how that should be done, his status resting upon how well and distinctively he does that. Apparently, the Shulman-Neutra show was a classic scrimmage for artistic control. Neutra would typically insist upon dangling a eucalyptus branch right in front of Shulman’s lens, to “suggest vegetation,” while to Neutra’s horror, Shulman would insist upon including the carefully arranged “everyday life” props that he carried around in his car, this being something for which he would become famous. And, of course, the two would take turns moving the camera – when the other wasn’t looking.

Picture 6

Much has been written on the luminous photographs of homes and buildings by Shulman that brought fame to a number of mid-20th century modernist architects and made him and them household names in the architectural world.


But personally speaking, I always favored the humanity and the staged settings that Shulman created in telling his stories of a house. Writing on these fantasies of modern glass houses in Palm Springs and Los Angeles Newsweek magazine’s Cathleen McGuigan noted that they “are so redolent of the era in which they were built you can practically hear the Sinatra tunes wafting in the air and the ice clinking in the cocktail glasses.”

Picture 2

Distributed by Arthouse Films and narrated by Dustin Hoffma, Visual Acoustics opens Friday, October 9, in New York, and October 16, in Los Angeles. It has won the Mercedes-Benz Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize at the Lone Star International Film Festival and Outstanding Achievement in Documentary Filmmaking from the Newport Beach Film Festival. It will also be made available on Netflix.


Julius Shulman, Self-Portrait




~ by eaesthete on 10/05/09.

One Response to “Modernisme Majestueux”

  1. Fascinating article and spectacular images – thank-you.


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