Visual Acoustics: A film about Julius Shulman

This morning my wife and I watched the film Visual Acoustics, a documentary about the career of Julius Shulman.

Shulman is arguably (probably?) the greatest architectural photographer of all time, and he was a very great photographer indeed. He was also tremendously important, because what most of us know about beautiful or important architecture outside our own home towns comes from photos. The movie reckons that, for every one person who sees a great piece of architecture in person, eighty thousand know it through a photo.

The film is an absolute delight from start to finish and I recommend it highly. The central character is Shulman himself, still very active in his mid-nineties!

I want to mention a few details about the film that make it particularly interesting to photographers. Many films about photographers show the photos but say almost nothing about the technical issues involved in their making. This film isn’t a lecture on technique, of course, but there is a lot of interesting info here about how the photos were made, and also about what makes Shulman’s photos distinctive. There’s more to it than the fact that his work dealt mostly with modernist architecture.

I was also struck by a comment Shulman makes in the film, that the camera is the least important element in photography. He says that, when he teaches, he doesn’t even let cameras be brought into the classroom until he has laid a lot of groundwork. I have said the same thing myself, as have many other photographers. Indeed I have been writing sketches for the last couple years that I hope to turn into a book about photography without cameras. I was glad to hear a great photographer like Shulman say this, not least because architectural photography does present a number of special technical challenges and he didn’t shoot with a 35mm SLR!

Finally, a comment on the question of whether Shulman is The Greatest Architectural Photographer, or not. Most successful, certainly. He practically created the field. But I can’t forget about Eugene Atget. Perhaps Atget wasn’t an architectural photographer at all. He was a cityscape photographer, with a wonderful subject: old Paris.


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