The filmmaker discusses his documentary on the photographer Julius Shulman
As site-specific work, architecture does not naturally cater to the mass market. Admittedly, some works are more public than others, but generally speaking one’s first experience of architecture today is mediated by photography. From the Parthenon to the Houses of Parliament, the indelible image of these structures in our collective imagination is only possible through the dissemination of photographic material.
In the 1940s, when post-war America was pioneering its new style, architectural photographers rose to the occasion by becoming ambassadors of the new Modernist movement. Among them, Julius Shulman is one of the most accomplished. Densely concentrated in Southern California, there are few modern architectural works that have not been documented and captured by his lens.
In 1999, Eric Bricker, then an art consultant, serendipitously met Julius Shulman and subsequently became good friends with him. In the following years, he decided to switch careers in order to direct and shoot a documentary film about Julius Shulman and his work. Released in 2009, Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman presents the photographer as a humanist born with "that rare eye that sees." We recently sat down with Eric to talk with him about the film, Julius Shulman’s ouevre, and the enduring legacy of Modernism.
“There’s always a sense of place in Julius’ photographs. That was his subject.”
KNOLL INSPIRATION: First of all, how did you come to meet Julius Shulman and what made you decide to direct a documentary about him and his legacy?
ERIC BRICKER: I actually met Julius by chance. It was the spring of 1999 and I was looking to rent a particular apartment in LA, where I was living at the time. It turned out his next-door neighbor owned the apartment building. I called her and we got to talking. I had been looking for some 1930s black-and-white photographs of San Francisco—I was working as an art consultant then—and when I told her this she said, “You know, my next-door neighbor is a photographer, his name is Julius Shulman. He might be able to help you.” I hadn’t heard of him at the time. And so I called him and explained what I was looking for, and he invited to come over to his house. That day changed the course of my life.
After we’d become good friends, I proposed to him in the latter part of 2001, “What do you think about me doing a documentary about you, the photographs, and the architecture.” And his reply to me was, “Well, I don’t see why not.”
Formally, Shulman has a particular point of view that strongly informs his methodology. What is it that defines Shulman’s particular aesthetic approach to capturing and representing Modernism?
The word that comes to mind is context. Julius always strove to provide the viewer with context, and in doing so explain: how it is we fit within a particular space, how the space informs us, and how architecture relates to its environment. There’s always a sense of place in Julius’ photographs. That was his subject, but he saw it as part of something larger. That’s the brilliance of Julius’ photographs.
“I wanted to offer viewers the opportunity to get to know the intent behind the works. The intent of the architects and the intent of the photographers, who were the greatest ambassadors of modernist architecture.”
Shulman defined the ‘look’ of post-war America: the wealth, the optimism, the order, and the ethos. What, in your opinion, is the cultural significance of his perspective on that era of American history?
I think Julius is very reflective of the time period. That generation lived through the Great Depression, they saved the world from Nazism, and then they came back and built a country. It was an era geared toward production and after the war, they applied that knowledge domestically. Julius’ photographs are very emblematic of that spirit . . . and there’s an authenticity to them. They’re statements expressing capability. “We can do anything,” that’s what I see in those photographs.
Over the last decade, there’s been a cultural shift towards the modernist aesthetic. Do you think that Shulman’s photographs contribute to that sense of collective nostalgia?
When I started researching the film, there had been a resurgence and newfound interest in modernism. But a lot of people seemed to fixate on the aesthetic aspect. In making the film, I wanted to offer viewers the opportunity to get to know the intent behind the works. The intent of the architects and the intent of the photographers, who were the greatest ambassadors of Modernist architecture.
In terms of the images themselves, I think there’s a lot of inspiration and aspiration that comes with viewing his photographs. They’re very easy to latch onto: the architecture, the design, the furniture, but ultimately it’s the lifestyle. It's a lifestyle that was geared toward functionality, comfort, design sense, and longevity. I think those values continue to resonate with a lot of people today.
But I should add that Benedict Taschen [of Taschen Books] and Craig Krull [of Craig Krull Gallery], were instrumental in recontextualizing Julius’ work as art . . . they really helped lay fertile ground for his photographs to be understood that way. It took Julius a longtime to get his head wrapped around it, but he was tickled by the idea that the photographs sitting in his archive could be shown as fine art.
“Good design is seldom accepted. It has to be sold. So the photographer is a propagandist, too. He must sell his subject.”
Los Angeles Times Home Magazine, April 30, 1961. Photography by Julius Shulman. Image courtesy of John Crosse.
Shulman was an excellent businessman and was quite candid about a photograph’s ability to sell an idea and a product. In his own words: “Good design is seldom accepted. It has to be sold. So the photographer is a propagandist, too. He must create subjective pictures, not snapshots. He must sell his subject.” Can you comment on the commercial dimension of Julius Shulman’s photographic oeuvre?
He had a constant stream of magazines flowing in from all over the world (Sweden, Japan, Australia) and he would look at every single one. He would say to me, “Look, I have an assignment either for a magazine or an architect and above all I want to understand who my audience is and where this piece going. If I can create an image that has impact, first it’s going to stop the viewer. Then it’s going to engage the viewer, so that they place their attention on the page. Only then can I transmit a message.” He was a master salesman. He was really good at what he did.
There are some wonderful scenes in your film where we see Shulman meticulously instructing his assistants on the desired arrangement of furniture within a given space. What role did furniture play in Shulman’s photographs?
The arrangement was all directed through the lens and for the frame. The way Julius would organize a room wouldn’t necessarily correspond with the way that someone would want to live in it. It was very much like set directing or stage design. Sometimes it was a puzzle and there was a lot of tweaking. It was very fun to watch.
The secondary intent was to capture the aspiration of the viewer, to get them to want to inhabit space by showing different possible arrangements. In that way, furniture was another selling tool.
“Stoller’s photography provides an elevational perspective. He was based on the East Coast, which is important, because New York is very much about the public space.”
People tend to populate Shulman’s photographs, which is somewhat atypical of architectural photography. Ezra Stoller, for instance, rarely includes people in his photographs except to convey the monumentality of his architectural subjects. People in Shulman’s photographs are active: they’re in conversation, lounging by the pool, applying make-up, and reading the paper. In one photograph, someone is even crafting a clay pot. In your opinion, how do people and their lifestyles factor into Shulman’s understanding of architectural space?
Stoller’s photography provides an elevational perspective. He was based on the East Coast, which is important, because New York, for instance, is very much about the public space, whereas Los Angeles, historically, has focused on the domestic space. In the 1950s, it was where one could carve out a piece of paradise. And so I think, the environment in which Julius was working partially explains why he was more geared toward the human scale.
But, there’s also the fact that spaces are built for us to inhabit. In the film, Shulman says: “Architecture affects everybody. From the hospital where you’re born, to the schools, grocery stores, markets, libraries, and theaters you inhabit. Every part of a person’s life is based on an architect’s presence.” In other words, architecture has a use and without people, quite often buildings become sculptural. They’re objectified. By populating his spaces with people, and showing how the space is used, Julius enables the viewer to understand the space better.
Although he was great friends with many of the architects who’s work he photographed, he was also opinionated. A lot has already been written about his push-and-pull relationship with the architect Richard Neutra, but can you provide some perspective on his friendship with Frank Gehry?
I believe Frank met Julius while looking at different architectural works around Los Angeles. Julius not only photographed his first architectural project, he also helped him get his first and second commission.
In the beginning of his career, Frank felt the public and the critics didn’t really like or understand his work and so he didn’t really feel comfortable, subsequently, asking Julius to photograph his buildings. Years later, Julius publicly criticized Frank’s plan for the Walt Disney Concert Hall. At a gala, Frank sat down with Julius and drew a sketch detailing how the space would be used. Julius had it framed.
There’s a scene in the film, where Julius meets with Frank and they relive this whole saga. But what's significant to me is that once Julius understood the intent behind Gehry's work, he accepted it. That openness is so characteristic of Julius. That’s why we include that scene of Julius shooting Walt Disney Concert Hall in the beginning of the film.
“Julius always stressed the interplay between man’s natural environment and his built environment and his photographs communicate that.”
Finally, Shulman was a fervent environmentalist and conservationist and became quite active and outspoken about those issues late in his career. Seeing buildings in decay caused him to dismay as much as witnessing the destruction of the natural landscape. How does his activism relate to his work as a photographer, if at all?
With domestic architecture, a house is surrounded by the natural environment. That’s why we opened up the film with Julius in sitting in his garden. That was his cathedral, that was his church. His house was designed to integrate with the garden. Julius always stressed the interplay between man’s natural environment and his built environment and his photographs communicate that.
Beyond that, Julius went on the record for Project Environment, publicly saying, “we really need to take a look at how we develop and what we’re doing to the environment.” And that ran for ten years, he was very proud of that show.
When he wasn’t working full time as an architectural photographer, he was actively involved in the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and in his spare time he was an avid bird watcher. I could go on and on, but it all ties back to when he lived on a farm in Connecticut in 1913. That time was very much imprinted on him. I always say he was a lifelong Eagle Scout.
Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman
All images are courtesy of Eric Bricker unless otherwise noted.