L.A. never so photogenic as in Julius Shulman’s lens

By David DArcy

Modernisms deepest and broadest penetration in the United States was in southern California, from the 1930s to the 1960s. No one has recorded this architectural era as admirably and admiringly as the photographer Julius Shulman, who at an energetic 98 is the subject of a film about the relationship between photography and the built modernist environment around Los Angeles. Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman — a film by Eric Bricker — will screen Sunday at the Marfa Film Festival, which begins today.

Los Angeles and Palm Springs never looked so good.[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_5FuW1SK88]

If it werent for Shulman, the taste for modernism would not have encouraged so much of that architecture to have been commissioned. Now that the same work is threatened by the usual suspects ““ developers — Shulman as photographer and activist is also crucial to preserving many of those structures that are still standing.

Visual Acoustics has been playing at festivals for a year now. I saw it at the International Festival of Film on Art in Montreal (FIFA) , the most important event of its kind in the world, where you can see dozens of films on architecture and design that are unlikely to play at a theater near you.

Visual Acoustics was one of the few exceptions to that rule at FIFA. It has a commercial distributor.

Shulmans vocation began, he tells us, when he was given a camera as a young man of 23. He began photographing the nature around him. There was plenty of it in Los Angeles back then. (Nature, more than architecture, is Shulmans great love.) He then spent four decades documenting an architectural beauty that, as his pictures showed, worked best as it altered the landscape the least.

Ugliness, we learn, eventually drove Julius Shulman out of his vocation of architectural photography in Los Angeles in the post-modern 1970s. As the architectural historian Reyner Banham said, “post-modernism is to architecture the way a female impersonator is to femininity.” Yet in Visual Acoustics, Eric Bricker takes us through Shulmans professional life, beginning in 1936, when the young man photographed a new house by Richard Neutra. Before Shulman persuaded Neutra that the indoor/outdoor qualities of his architecture needed a photographers eye to look best in pictures, the imperious Neutra (twenty years his senior) had the habit of holding tree branches in front of camera to give the impression that his work was sited in vegetation. (At least he didnt line up beggars to make shade.) Shulman and his camera improved on Neutras nutty approach, and the work got more attention than ever before. Naturally, Neutra took all the credit, but everyone soon knew who was responsible.

The job endeared Shulman to several generations of Los Angeles modernists, who were looking for legitimacy for their new style in unschooled southern California, and for work. Shulmans pictures of their hybrid style that married Frank Lloyd Wright to European modernism were crucial.

As the numbing narration by Dustin Hoffman reminds us, most of us know most of our architecture through photography. (Hoffman reminds us that actors generally shouldnt narrate documentaries.) Architects live and die by images of their work, Hoffman reads from Brickers script. If a few hundred people enter a modernist private house, many thousands will know that house from its picture. If it were a modernist house in Los Angeles in the 1940s or 1950s, that picture was likely to have been taken by Julius Shulman.

Architects like Neutra, Rudolf Schindler and Frank Lloyd Wrights protégé John Lautner (subject of another documentary at FIFA, Infinite Space; The Architecture of John Lautner) hired Shulman. They and a succession of others, including Frank Gehry, acknowledged Shulmans feel for the way that light recorded in his photographs could capture the magic of their interiors ““ and get them more work from clients who werent convinced by plans and pitches. It was the passage of time (measured by light) that made you understand the space, observes the Schindler specialist Kimberli Meyer. In other words, transparency is not a static condition.

Shulmans pictures also dramatized how landscape completed a work of architecture. As the film tracks the emergence of Los Angeles as a center for bold design ““ and not just for the rich, since many of John Lautners houses were built on lots that sold cheaply because they were considered “unbuildable” ““ it also surveys the environmental degradation that clouds the citys legendary light and makes living there a burden. Development greed is a threat that has outlived post-modernism, and has turned Shulman into a committed environmentalist. Few architects can afford to be as honest about the environment as he is in this film.

Shulmans own house in the Hollywood Hills reflects his preference for the kind of environment that is as endangered in Los Angeles as modernism is. The grounds are swarming with plants. This is my church, he says to the camera. The place is Shulmans constructed micro-environment, everything that most of Los Angeles is no longer.

If Shulman could influence some of the architects, he could not influence all their clients. In a way, you can stop time, says Shulman about preservation, but vigilance is an essential part of that equation. In one scene, a proudly optimistic buyer of the iconic 1937 Grace Miller House in Palm Springs is determined to restore it to its original state. What she cant change is a huge box of a building that was built on the land between the house and the mountains, which the original owner had sold, assuming that nothing would ever be constructed there. Of course, this was prime land, and the new structure obstructed (you might say raped) what Shulman called “a sacred view of southern California.” He urges the new owner to buy some charges of dynamite, and remove it. (When youre 98, you can get away with that kind of talk.) Perhaps this documentary will help us avoid getting to that point again.

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