Documentary looks at legendary architectural photographer

“Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman,” which will be shown at the Webster Film Series this weekend, is a documentary about how one photographer’s visually lush images of modern architecture helped popularize the style by showing the beauty in modern buildings. Director Eric Bricker, who grew up in St. Louis, created this fascinating and visually beautiful documentary about the work of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. You may not recognize Shulman’s name but you will not forget his striking, dramatic photographs.

Growing up, Bricker’s family belonged to B’nai El Congregation. He attended Parkway West High School. His family, including parents Marlene and Steve Bricker, all still live here. Bricker moved to Los Angeles in the 1990s, although he now lives in Austin, Texas. Marlene Bricker is one of the speakers at this weekend’s screenings.


“Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman,” which is narrated by Dustin Hoffman, debuted locally at the 2008 St. Louis International Film Festival, but has gone on to success on the festival circuit, eventually picking up distribution by ArtHouse. The documentary is now in theatrical release at Landmark Theaters around the country, although it is not currently scheduled for St. Louis.

The documentary is scheduled to be shown on the Sundance Channel starting May 1 and will be out on DVD in June.

However, this is a film best seen on a big screen, to appreciate its photographic beauty. One look at the documentary’s movie poster lets you know what to expect: breathtaking, ethereal photography.

Starting in the mid 1930s, Julius Shulman’s photographs captured the best side of modern architecture in beautifully composed and dramatically-lit black-and-white images that were art in themselves. Rather than take a backseat to the buildings’ designers, Shulman’s work created iconic images of modernism and his work became a star-making vehicle for architects and the best way to sell modernism.

Shulman, who died in 2009, worked with architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry. Shulman’s images often have a dreamlike, other worldly element that is both striking and unforgettable.

The documentary uses interviews, footage of Shulman at work and, of course, plenty of his gorgeous photographs. One does not have to be a fan of mid-century modernism to be delighted with Shulman’s works, but modernism was Shulman’s passion and what infused his work with such vibrancy.

Shulman’s showmanship and likeable, determined personality also shine through.

The title “Visual Acoustics” is a phrase coined by Shulman to describe the interplay between the light and the space in a building and how you can almost hear that interplay. In fact, Shulman himself insisted on that title, according to the director in a recent phone interview.

When Bricker first saw Shulman’s photographs, he was struck by how very cinematic they were and wanted to see them on a big screen. “Julius is just one of the most remarkable people I ever met, not just because he was a master photographer. He was a master of living life,” said Bricker.

The project developed over several years, growing out of Bricker’s friendship with Shulman. “I had met Julius by chance,” Bricker said. “I was in need of some black and white photography of 1930s San Francisco.” Bricker got his phone number from a neighbor and arranged to meet at Shulman’s house. When he arrived, Shulman was on the phone and waved him in, giving Bricker a chance to look through a book of Shulman’s work.

“I was blown away by the photography. Afterwards, we met and talked and we really had a connection. And I was equally blown away by him.”

They became friends and a couple of years later Bricker proposed the idea of making a documentary. “His response to me was, ‘Well, I don’t see why not.'” Research on the film began in January 2002 and the film was released in 2008.

The documentary is narrated by Dustin Hoffman. He had met Shulman when he photographed Hoffman at a project for Santa Monica Community College, for which the actor was serving on the board. They, too, hit it off as soon as they met.

“About a year and a half later, Dustin was the recipient of the Julius Shulman Excellence in Communication Award at Woodbury University,” Bricker said. “I was there at that event and I was noticing, as they were both on stage together, that they were just seemingly cut from the same cloth,” he said. “They are both performers — they really just had this playful volley that persisted throughout the entire presentation. Hearing Dustin talk about his approach to his respective craft of acting, I realized that he, like Shulman, was a master craftsman.”

That night, Bricker decided that Hoffman was the right person to narrate the film and Hoffman quickly agreed to it.

There is no particularly Jewish content in the film but Bricker, Shulman and Hoffman are all Jewish and that shared heritage helped them connect. “You can’t escape the fact that this is the culture from which (Shulman) came, and that’s where I came from as well,” said Bricker. That Shulman reminded Bricker of his maternal grandfather, Dave Goldenhersh, was part of their connection. Although they worked together briefly, Bricker felt familiar links with Hoffman as well. Shulman described Hoffman to Bricker by saying “Oh, he’s a mensch.”

“Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman” will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 – 31 at the Webster Film Series. On Jan. 29, Stephen Leet, Professor of Architecture at Washington University, and Marlene Bricker will take questions from the audience. On Jan. 30, architectural photographer, writer, musician and blogger Toby Weiss and architectural photographer Ken Konchel join Marlene Bricker for a question-and-answer session.