Eric Bricker and Julius Shulman at Richard Neutra’s Miller House during filming of Visual Acoustics © Will Paice
Having spent six years making film-documentary Visual Acoustics: the Modernism of Julius Shulman, Co-Producer Will Paice shares his memories of the great architectural photographer and activist Julius Shulman, who did so much to publicise the Modernist movement in California.
When did you first become aware of the work of Julius Shulman?
I first visited Palm Springs in 1998, and I fell in love with the place as soon as I set eyes on it. On that trip, I searched out the city’s surviving architectural gems, despite the 40-degree summer heat that kept the locals in their air-conditioned houses. Palm Springs was just beginning to be rediscovered: the glamour set had long-since moved on, leaving a dispossessed retirement town. It had the air of a ghost town, with many of the shops standing empty and the neon sign that had welcomed the Rat Pack, Lucille Ball, Duke Ellington and Marilyn Munroe to the Chi Chi club had been switched off for the last time in 1977, when the building was torn down. Most of the old haunts had gone; the supper clubs, cocktail bars, grills, motels and lounges where Frank Sinatra and his friends had sipped ice cold Martinis had been replaced by seedy Irish pubs and burger bars.
I wanted to find out more about Palm Springs Modernism, and the glittering stars who had populated this once glamorous city. And that’s how I encountered the photographs of Julius Shulman. Like so many others, I discovered the true Palm Springs, and the brilliance of architects like Richard Neutra and Albert Frey through his lens.
What inspired you to make a film about Julius Shulman?
In 2003, I left my job at Panavision, the film technology company based just outside Los Angeles, California. I’d been working in the film industry on both sides of the Atlantic for 20 years, supplying film equipment to Hollywood feature films, television productions and commercials, but now I wanted to get behind a camera myself. I’d been involved in the Modernist architectural preservation movement in Palm Springs and Los Angeles for some time: people were only just becoming aware of the jewels of Mid century Modern architecture that were being torn down by developers, remodelled beyond recognition, or even just left to rot under the brutal desert sun. A small group of us were doing what we could to change the way that the City of Palm Springs viewed their local planning process. Organisations such as The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation and The Palm Springs Modernism Committee were lobbying hard to save treasures designed by Albert Frey, Richard Neutra, William Cody, E. Stewart Williams, Donald Wexler and John Lautner.
In February 2004, three months after I had left Panavision, I was chilling by the pool at the Jetson-cool Orbit In, designed by Herb Burns in 1957. The sun was dipping behind the honey-coloured San Jacinto mountains and the hotel manager was mixing the first cocktails of the evening behind the poolside bar, and as luck would have it, Julius Shulman was sitting waiting for his driver to take him back to Los Angeles after two days of book signings. At 93, he was as sharp and sprightly as most people half his age, with a lively sense of humour and, as I remember, wearing pillar-box red braces.
He had the presence of someone who was on familiar territory. After all, he had been coming to Palm Springs since 1926, and had photographed many of the Modernist houses in the area. Those were the days when only a few city dwellers had discovered this desert paradise; the golf courses littering the valley floor were still to be mapped out and Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable were yet to spend their weekends on the courts of the Palm Springs Raquet Club. I had been an admirer of the work of Julius Shulman for years, but this was the first time I had met him. We talked and he told me that a young filmmaker, Eric Bricker, was hoping to make a film about him and wondered if I could help.
What is it that makes Julius Shulman’s photographs of the Case Study houses so special?
Julius Shulman’s image of Case Study House #22 has become perhaps the most evocative symbol of Los Angeles and the relaxed, modern lifestyle epitomised by the city. It expresses the confidence of America’s post-war hegemony and its aspirations towards progress and technology. The house truly embodies Le Corbusier’s contention that “a house is a machine for living in” in an age when engineering and technological advances would change the world for good. And Julius Shulman captures the very essence of that affirmation, transforming an already significant building into an architectural icon. Julius Shulman has brought a human element to his photographs of the Case Study houses: whilst rigorously observing the architectural structure, the sensory anatomy of steel and glass and concrete, the texture of light and shade, he breaks from the conventions of architectural photography by introducing real people into his compositions. This immediately creates a connection with the building, and allows one to imagine oneself in that space. As a result, when Julius Shulman took his architectural photographs to the national magazines, they happily published them, making the reputations of both Julius and his architect clients.
More recently, Julius Shulman’s meticulously catalogued archive (now at the Getty Research Institute) has provided an invaluable resource for architects and interior designers restoring modified or damaged Case Study Houses. Many of the plans were altered during construction, and the original architects’ drawings (where they still exist) do not always reflect these changes. So in many cases Julius’ photographs provide the only true record of how the Case Study Houses looked when they were newly completed.
What was it like to work with Julius Shulman on the film?
Julius’ energy was legendary and without his incredible generosity, the film would not have been made. He allowed himself to be filmed for many tens of hours, and he opened his Rolodex and freely shared his extensive list of friends and contacts. He knew most of the current (and previous) owners of the Case Study Houses, celebrities and LA personalities, as well as the great architects of the period. Julius’ personal friendship with Pierre Koenig (architect of CSH#21 and CSH#22) and his comprehensive reminiscences of working with the other Case Study architects provided a valuable first hand resource for the film. Julius had the most extraordinary memory. He could recall in detail the circumstances of every photographic commission, even down to the quality of the light on the day. He recollected whole conversations from half a century or more before, and wove his memories into enlightening and intoxicating stories. Throughout the making of the film, from 2004 to 2007, we spent many days with Julius at his own Modernist house and comfortably cluttered studio on Woodrow Wilson Drive in the Hollywood Hills, looking through his impeccably maintained archive of some 260,000 images. With the impending transferal of the archive to the Getty, it was not uncommon for us to spend much of the night searching out the best images and scanning them to digital files for the film.
What was it like to visit the remaining Case Study Houses and meet some of the original owners?
One of the great delights in making the film was the access it gave us to the Mid century Modern houses that Julius had photographed, and to their owners. I spent several wonderful days at the Stahl House, Case Study House #22. The owners, Buck and Carlotta Stahl, who built the house between 1954 and 1960, were still living there when we made the film, and were delighted that the world had rediscovered this iconic building. They graciously lent us the house for a fundraiser evening in 2004 and our launch party after the film’s premier at The Los Angeles Film Festival. Buck and Carlotta have since sadly passed away, as did Julius in 2009, aged 99. I feel incredibly lucky to have met these people, as well as all the others who I encountered during the making of the film. They grew up in Depression Era America and were spirited and tough. They started out with very little but made a lot out of it. They took little from others, but gave generously. That is perhaps the biggest life lesson that I took from making the film, and Visual Acoustics is dedicated to their memory.