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What the new Julius Shulman documentary leaves out

October 19, 2009 |  3:30 pm

It would be easy to think that we've heard all there is to hear -- or said all there is to say -- about Julius Shulman, at least for the time being. Dozens of obituaries, remembrances and eulogies followed the architectural photographer's death in July at age 98. And now, as if to top it all off, a documentary, "Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman," has arrived in theaters.

Directed by Eric Bricker in a fizzily honorific style, it features appearances by fashion designer Tom Ford, curator Joseph Rosa, architect Frank Gehry and actress Kelly Lynch, among many others.

Julius And yet the movie does anything but neatly wrap up the photographer's place in history, or add a simple coda to the recent flurry of Shulmania. In fact, it suggests -- unwittingly, for the most part, and often in spite of its own straightforward, upbeat ambitions -- just how complicated and unresolved Shulman's legacy remains.

"Visual Acoustics" thoroughly and often playfully charts the progress of Shulman's career; the shades of his generally optimistic personality; his dislike, shading into hatred, for Postmodern architecture; and his late-in-life resurgence as a modernist revival began to gain momentum a decade or so ago. But it is decidedly less enthusiastic about exploring the wide, sometimes contradictory sweep of his influence, which in certain respects is a richer and more meaningful story. It steps back from confronting the ways in which the modernist architecture he championed and promoted helped push American cities -- Los Angeles in particular -- in directions the photographer himself either distrusted or actively tried to fight.

One of the directions was the result of modernism's drift, as it flourished in the United States, from the social mission that had propelled its rise in Europe in the first few decades of the 20th century. Another was its effect, in the most extreme examples bluntly destructive, on the American city, especially as Modern architecture moved from progressive underdog to dominant, default style, and from the private house to the public building.

In both those cases, Shulman's iconic images of the postwar Southern California residence -- cool, spare, transparent and communing more with nature than with any neighboring houses -- helped promote the idea that the finest architecture of the period was a vessel for personal rather than collective ambition and had little if anything to do with the messiness of cities or urban planning.

There is a moment near the end of the documentary when Columbia University's Kazys Varnelis begins to make a version of this point, noting that modernism in Southern Californa became more and more "associated with the idea of lifestyle." The idea is dropped, though, before it gains a foothold in the movie's crowded visual landscape.

But it's a third theme, not unrelated to the first two, that really ties the documentary's narrative strands into knots. It is the relationship between the single-family house and suburban sprawl, and between competing notions of private and shared nature.

Shulman lived for most of his career in a house in the Hollywood Hills he commissioned from the modernist architect Raphael Soriano, and in the early scenes of "Visual Acoustics" the photographer happily describes the remarkable buffer zone of privacy surrounding the house and its extensive garden. Pointing out that the house stands just "two miles from Hollywood Boulevard," Shulman pauses and says triumphantly, "Listen. Not a sound. Just the birds.... This is heaven!"

Having walked with Shulman through that garden, I know that his appreciation for nature -- and for a talented architect's ability to set a flat-roofed house into a hillside just so -- was genuine. Indeed, he was actively involved in the early stages of the environmental movement, arguing for measures to cut the smog that had by midcentury blanketed much of Los Angeles. In the documentary, he is shown in a television appearance -- the width of the lapels suggests it is of 1970s vintage -- facing off against a PR representative from the Irvine Corp. who is eager to defend the practice of transforming virgin land on the outskirts of Los Angeles County into new housing tracts for the middle class.

Koenig22 But the movie never pauses to consider a pressing, if inconvenient, point: That the very success of Shulman's most famous and reproduced photographs in romanticizing the newly built single-family house also gave a boost to sprawl, freeway construction and the pollution that attends both.

Not everybody can live on a secluded parcel of land in the Hollywood Hills. But for a long time, Shulman's potent images helped convince Southern Californians that their goal should be to live in a single-family house with a private garden somewhere -- even if it were to be built by companies like the Irvine Corp. on property a lot more than two miles from Hollywood Boulevard.

For all those reasons, the documentary operates, however indirectly, as a long proof in support of what might be called Shulman's Law of Unintended Consequences.

Shulman's best photographs undoubtedly qualify as art. But he was very much an artist for hire, and his work was in nearly every case patently promotional, as he was happy to admit. What remains out there, waiting to be tackled, is the question of what, in the broadest sense, he was promoting -- and what the runaway success of that effort has meant for architecture and for Los Angeles.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Photo: Julius Shulman in 2005, photographing a Schindler house. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times