This absorbing documentary from 2008 focuses on Julius Shulman (1910-2009), a photographer best known for his stylish, dynamic studies of mid-century modern Californian architecture by the likes of Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Pierre Koenig. Although Shulman himself is less well-known outside the photography and architecture scenes than those architects, his frequently reproduced images of their structures helped to create the iconic status of those buildings. His best-known work, a portrait-shaped shot of a glass box house lit from within by spherical lights and overlooking the glowing grid of Los Angeles in the valley far below, Case Study House #22, Los Angeles, 1960; Pierre Koenig, Architect, has been seen so many times before and imitated in so many other photos and films that it’s a fascinating revelation to hear its origin story.
Director Eric Bricker has adeptly assembled a seamless bricolage of vintage 20th-century footage together with material from a doc made in the earliest years of this century when Shulman was in his 90s – along with nifty new animation and interview snippets that bridge ideas and fill gaps.
The film itself is like a building made from standing ruins and broken masonry, as well as contemporary girders and glass, producing a structure that flaunts rather than hides its composite nature. And while the focus is mostly on the charismatic, engaging character of Shulman, the narration (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) keeps spinning off at interesting tangents to talk about urban planning, the birth of the environmental movement (of which Shulman was an early supporter), and a bigger story of modernist architecture from Louis Sullivan and the Vienna secession up to Frank Gehry. Tours of homes that Shulman shot and are now owned by assorted rich and fabulous Angelenos and Palm Springs residents add an engaging human dimension. The whole package is like an article in a vintage issue of Wallpaper* magazine brought to life.
• Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman review is on digital formats from 30 November.