He captured buildings at their best

Architectural photographer Julius Shulman's 1960 shot of Case Study House No. 22 by Pierre Koenig, from the film "Visual Acoustics."
Architectural photographer Julius Shulman's 1960 shot of Case Study House No. 22 by Pierre Koenig, from the film "Visual Acoustics."
Posted: December 18, 2009

Visual Acoustics is a captivating portrait of Julius Shulman, the venerable architectural photographer who died in July at age 98. You might not recognize his name, but almost certainly you've gasped at his iconic images of modernist buildings. Shulman photographed buildings as if they were movie stars: He found their best angles and immortalized them.

Frank Lloyd Wright may have birthed the Guggenheim Museum, but it was Shulman - in photographs of rare spatial clarity and transcendence - who delivered Wright's inspiring helical funnel to the public.

And it was Shulman, in a widely published photograph of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22, that glass-and-steel aerie perched atop the Hollywood Hills overlooking the twinkling city below, who in one indelible image captured the physics and metaphysics of the Los Angeles lifestyle.

This Case Study house, star of countless films, is the cantilevered structure from which the aliens abduct Tim Allen in Galaxy Quest. Significantly, the houses and museums that Shulman shot are invariably more resplendent in his photographs than they are in movies (or life) because he framed them so dramatically, distilling their poetry and dynamism and incandescence into one still image. (No artist, not even David Hockney, captures Los Angeles light and shadow like Shulman.)

Eric Bricker's glowing portrait of Shulman uses its subject's photos to persuade the viewer that one picture is worth a thousand architectural masterworks.

Visual Acoustics (its title taken from Shulman's term for the spatial resonance to which he aspired) is many things.

It's a song of an unsung figure; a big-screen pictorial of modernist architecture (with an emphasis on domestic projects in Los Angeles and Palm Springs) and a survey of Shulman's accomplishment.

Figures including fashion designer Tom Ford, artist Ed Ruscha, and architect Frank Gehry are on hand to describe the impact of Shulman's work. (Needless to say, Visual Acoustics is not a critical biography.) Those fortunate enough to own houses photographed by Shulman use his images as reference points when it comes to architectural restoration.

Bricker's film is required viewing for architects, architectural aficionados, historians, designers, photographers, and lovers of photography. Isn't that just about everyone?


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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