Directed by Eric Bricker
If photographers can mythologize events, buildings and locations with a stunning composition or lighting design, it’s now apparently become the duty of so many documentarians to mythologize their subjects with the correct talking heads and editing of material to tout their subjects as godheads. That’s nearly the case with Eric Bricker’s documentary about Julius Shulman, the commercial photographer responsible for many of the iconic photographs of Modern architecture that even most lay people remember from magazine spreads. At times the film teeters on becoming a real estate agent’s dream advertising tool (especially with Dustin Hoffman as soothing narrator), but luckily Shulman is such an interesting character due to the influence he wielded in Modern architecture’s ability to flourish in America that all the gushy conversations with architects and academics actually seem merited.
Shulman died earlier this year at the age of 98, and it’s no wonder that Bricker was infatuated with the man’s talent. Probably most well-known for the photo of "Case Study House #22," the glass box cantilevered in the Hollywood hills overlooking Los Angeles’ twinkling lights below, Shulman began young by photographing Neutra’s buildings and continued working until the end. One of the most enlightening moments is when Bricker shows Shulman photographing Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. His meticulous attention to detail reminds all those digital point-and-shoot enthusiasts what goes into composing a standout photograph.
The reality is that much of the focus—SoCal buildings that were built during the mid-20th Century by lesser-known designers—are of little interest to most outside the West Coast architecture realm. And why folks such as Tom Ford were asked to speak for Shulman’s rep is a mystery. Perhaps the fashion designer owns a house that was photographed by Shulman and he wants to up its value by promoting the man who photographed it? Gehry was also conscripted to speak on Shulman’s behalf, and he provides one of the most awkward moments of the film as he haltingly praises the man for his keen eye for architectural detail. One way in which Bricker certainly raised the film from hagiography into an excellent and entertaining teaching tool is the inclusion of animation by Trollback Company. They take difficult to understand ideas and transform them into compelling storytelling.
Ultimately, it’s a congratulatory biography of Shulman the artist and as his archives are being trucked away to the Getty for safekeeping (and most likely to make Getty Images a pretty penny?), I was reminded of the recent documentary about art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel. It’s some cruel trick: We feel the need to celebrate aging iconoclasts as we force them into obsolescence.