Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman
Visual Acoustics (2009) is Eric Bricker’s documentary on the late photographer, Julius Shulman. The film is a congratulatory piece, and chronologically documents Shulman’s ascent as the superstar photographer of Southern California Modernism, ending with Shulman’s archive being sent to rest at The Getty. Shulman’s photographs have become iconic of the period; his deliberate style of framing and lighting architecture matches its optimistic, lifestyle driven aesthetic. One interesting critique that the documentary makes is that Shulman’s presence is clearly felt in each of his photographs. This is also true of the film, which relies heavily on his narration, presence, and the use of his personal archives. Despite the fact that the film is narrated by Dustin Hoffman, it’s clear that it is Shulman himself, not the narration, that molds his persona and image in the film. Another strength of Visual Acoustics is the excellent commentary. Rarely do commentators of biographical documentaries give such nuanced looks at the history and context of the person’s trade. We are treated to a myriad of media which give us insight into the life of Julius Shulman: footage of him as a young man on television, looks into his photographic archives, even his artistic process in photographing architecture such as the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Stars such as Richard Neutra, Frank O. Gehry, John Lautner, Gregory Ain, and Ed Ruscha also appear in the film.
Thankfully, Bricker did not follow the trend of filming a biographical documentary after the death of the subject. Shulman passed away in July of 2009, and it’s hard to imagine this film having the clout that it does without his strong presence. In it, Shulman weaves the mythology of his life, photographs, and the architecture that gave him his claim to fame.