Julius Schulman and Visual Acoustics

It’s dangerous when a wonky person such as myself watches a movie about a very specific thing, especially when that very specific thing is something I am specifically interested in. So when I sat down to watch “Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Schulman”, it shouldn’t be too surprising that part of me came away disappointed.

Let’s back up for a second. It is a pretty good documentary about an architectural photographer of huge import, and how his photographs helped promote a movement, and to a certain extent, how we all see our living spaces, or how we interact with our spaces, or how our spaces shape us and our lives. That was a mess of a sentence, and I apologize for that, but the message of the movie itself wanders about a bit, too, not necessarily pointing out all the possibilities that ended up in the above sentence, but hinting at them at the very least.

Schulman was there for much, if not all, of the life of the modernist movement, and the movie is just as much the story of modernist architecture as it is of the man whose photographs help tell so much of the story. His photographs are of the highest excellence, and exceed the overall quality of the movie itself. They are wonderful to see, and challenge the knowing viewer to think about how much a photograph can say about something that seems obvious and unchanging (such as a building). Buildings aren’t like people, and architectural photography is not like portraiture where the photographer has to catch an expression or a moment. Still, Schulman’s images show how a good architectural photographer can bring a personality out of building.

The one thing missing form this movie, says the wonk in me, is a detailed description on the photographic methods. I want cameras, films, lenses, focal lengths and apertures, processes, discussions of film and digital. All the things that would bore the masses to tears. There is some discussion of one-point perspective, but it’s more or less in passing. With photographs that beautiful, it is just downright stodgy of the filmmakers not to turn into a how-to spot. Forget popular watchability! Give me the details!

Well, that’s impractical. I know it. There’s still plenty to learn and think about from watching the movie, and of course now I want to go out and shoot some modernism.


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