Published: December 31, 2002
By Bob Jackman
BOSTON, MASS. — Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) entered the art world intent upon becoming a painter. He left the world, however, renown not so much for his skills with a brush, but rather as a master behind the lens. “The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist,” a retrospective exhibition featuring a diversified body of works from one of America’s most significant photographers, is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through February 5.
The exhibition has been touted as one of the most important photography exhibitions of the decade and also provides a rare opportunity to view Sheeler’s work as public viewings are severely limited since almost all of his extant prints are housed in a single collection. “He was one of the greatest of all photographers,” stated MFA’s lead curator Theodore Stebbins, “his artistic talents extended well beyond his photographic skills — no matter what the medium, Sheeler proved his worth as a pioneer artist well ahead of his time.
“Sheeler was one of the few American artists in any medium who developed approaches to art that were subsequently emulated in Europe as well as in America,” explained Stebbins. “He brought Cubism and Modernism to America in 1910, before the 1913 Armory Show. During the 1910s he applied Cubist and Abstract approaches to American subjects in photographic series based at Doylestown, Penn.
“His tight-cropped nudes emphasizing form were printed several years before those of Stieglitz and Weston,” Stebbins continued. “He created the world’s first art films, and was the first moviemaker to print individual stills from film footage as artistic photographs. He was the first artist in the world inspired to photograph industrial installations as abstract forms and as symbols of a new strength. This became a major component of objective photography. In 1929 he became the first photorealist painter. Sheeler’s related paintings, drawings and photographs foreshadow those of Chuck Close in the 1960s.”
Gilles Mora of France, an internationally recognized expert of photography, conceived the idea of a major Sheeler retrospective and was ultimately selected as one of the show’s three curators. “I think of Sheeler as the first American modernist photographer,” stated Mora. “Sheeler was a photographer of international significance. He experimented more than other Americans. He made the first art films, and these stimulated artists in Germany, France and elsewhere in Europe. His series at Ford’s River Rouge factory raised industrial photography to an artistic level. Soon after publication, the images were widely published across Europe, and industrial art became the primary genre of objective photographers, particularly in Germany.”
Doylestown, Nudes, and Art Photography
After graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts, Sheeler studied further under William Merritt Chase. In 1908 and 1909 Sheeler and fellow artist Morton Schamberg traveled to Europe. Most of their trip was spent studying traditional Italian art. On the final leg of the trip, they traveled to Paris where exposure to Cubists and Post-Impressionists transformed their careers.
When Sheeler returned to America, he painted Cubist images based on American inspirations. Finding American collectors were not ready for Cubism, Sheeler supported himself and his painting with income from commercial photography. His initial specialization was in architectural photography shooting standard images sought by architects, magazines and real estate agents. With the help of Eduard Steichen and others he eventually received magazine commissions. With a few exceptions, those commissions for illustration or advertising sought quality photographs of fashion, art and other standard subjects.
During the 1910s Sheeler also began experimenting with artistic photography having strong Cubist and abstract compositions and quickly won critical acclaim. In 1918 he won first prize in the Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of Photographs. Modernist advocate Alfred Stieglitz dubbed Sheeler, Paul Strand and Morton Schamberg the “Trinity of Photography.” Since many of Sheeler’s images at the time were shot in Doylestown, Penn., they became known as the Doylestown series. They encompassed 16 images of a house in Doylestown and some barn pictures.
In 1916 the range of Sheeler’s commercial photography expanded when he was hired to photograph art at the Modern Gallery in New York. Photographing art developed into his second commercial photographic genre. Photographing art also provided Sheeler with an informal course of modernism. The first book he illustrated was African Negro Wood Sculpture by Marius de Zayas. Author Constance Rourke opined that Sheeler’s photographs of several African sculpture collections “represent …one of the great series in American photography.”
The process also provided Sheeler with entrée to the inner circles of the art community. Soon he was photographing major collections, such as the modern art and folk art of famed collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. Through the Arensbergs, Sheeler met and became a fast friend of French modernist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was an extremely precise person, and their interaction helped Sheeler sharpen his own thinking and art.
Manhattan in Film and Print
The most unanticipated and important work in the exhibition is the six-minute silent film Manhatta created in 1920 by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand. It is the only surviving example of a Sheeler film. Karen Haas, curator of the Lane Collection and co-curator of this exhibition, noted, “We do not know precisely the division of labor between Sheeler and Strand. But we do know that Sheeler owned the lightweight, French Debrie L’Interview Type E camera, and he used the camera to shoot other films. Since Sheeler had just moved to New York, he probably was unfamiliar with the best vantage points for recording city life. Strand lived in the city, and knew all the best locations. It seems likely to us that Strand suggested sets and camera locations.”
The film presents daily life within a six square block area of Lower Manhattan. Interspersed with images of the city are poetic passages from Walt Whitman that glorify urban power. The film is rich with Cubist images of the landscape.
Sheeler later reminisced about the film, “Manhatta was based on a very close and fluid experimentation between us … [Manhatta] has become an avant-garde classic … Both of us were well along the road of abstract organization of reality.”
Filmed in 1920, Manhatta played at the Rialto Theatre in New York in 1921. A contemporary critic called the film “honestly, gloriously, photographic.” Several years after Manhatta, European filmmakers produced numerous “street film” and “city symphonies” attempting to artistically convey the essence of their communities.
Sheeler created a number of other films. There is solid documentary evidence of two other films. The first depicted Morton Schamberg and a parrot (1915), and the second was a strip tease by his wife (1918). In addition, there are several references in scattered documents from other sources where participants mention working on Sheeler films. For example, actress Beatrice Wood wrote correspondence that mentioned a film Sheeler was shooting featuring her at the Arensbergs’ apartment. In Strand’s correspondence with Stieglitz, there were mentions of several other films that Strand and Sheeler were planning together.
Another innovation by Sheeler was the printing of individual photographs from a single frame of movie footage. The first known example was the 1918 series of nude images that he printed from the film of his wife Katherine doing a strip tease. Sheeler’s nudes are also notable for their extreme level of abstraction, far more than later images by Stieglitz.
Sometimes Sheeler produced a graphite drawing of a nude based upon a single film frame in which the drawing altered the image by eliminating harsh shadows and introducing a softer overall contrast.
The filming of Manhatta apparently stimulated Sheeler to also produce individual photographs of the borough. Some, such as “Ferry Docking,” were printed as stills from film footage. In other cases, however, Sheeler returned to camera locations used in the film and employed a large format (eight- by ten-inch) still camera to produce high-quality negatives.
Curator Karen Haas noted, “Sheeler sometimes printed more than one image from a single large negative. He cropped the negative differently to create different groups of buildings. We have four different images that were all printed from the same large format negative shot from the Equitable Building at 120 Broadway.”
The Manhatta series of still images is important for its Cubist thrust. It was not, however, the first series of artistic photographs of Manhattan. Both Stieglitz and Strand had done series some years earlier. When California photographer Edward Weston visited New York, Sheeler’s images of the city won his strongest praise. He wrote of Sheeler’s series that they were “a remarkable portrait of New York, the finest architectural photography I have ever seen.”
Curator Stebbins discerned an interesting pattern. “Even before Sheeler began working with film, it seems that he was thinking in a sequential manner where he first depicted his subject from a distance, and then took a progressively tighter series of closeups. For example, the Doylestown series began with an exterior image of the entire house. Then it went inside for detailed shots that are more creative, abstract and Cubist. There is a similar progression in his nude series. It is like a strip tease. It begins with a picture of his fully clothed wife Katherine. Then she undresses an rdf_Description at a time and the series ends with the revolutionary close cropped abstract pictures.”
River Rouge Series
Through 1926 Sheeler’s commercial photography generated high quality, but restrictions of time and editors usually prevented him from achieving artistic quality on those assignments. His work appeared regularly in Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar. Sheeler was uncomfortable with the restraints of photographing for periodicals. He referred to the experience as “a daily trip to jail.”
Sometimes when photographing sculpture, Sheeler was able to bring full artistic freedom to a commercial project. For example, in photographing one African mask, he placed the light source behind the mask. Light passing through the mask eyes illuminated the front of the mask producing an eerie effect.
Sheeler’s commercial photography suddenly merged with his artistic photography in 1927. Henry Ford was about to replace the model T with the model A, and he wanted to mount a heavy public relations campaign. The advertising firm NW Ayer & Son commissioned Sheeler to produce 32 images of Ford’s 11,000-acre factory at River Rouge, outside Detroit.
Sheeler’s River Rouge series shocked at two levels. First, no image depicted a complete car and only few pictures contained recognizable automotive parts such as a wheel. Second, the series captured the factory’s massive architectural grandeur and the might of industrial power. Suddenly the factory was presented as the cathedral of modern America. Overnight the image of Ford changed from the barebones model T to a world-class industrial facility.
The world had never seen photographs like the River Rouge series. It was the first series of artistic photographs to triumph the might and beauty of industrial building and machinery. The series captured a muscularity of form in a way that broke from realism. It initiated the school of industrial photography. Ford and Ayer blitzed both the American and European market with the images.
Curator Mora commented, “‘The River Rouge’ series became available in Europe within months after it was published in America. Within one year Sheeler was being copied in Germany. The series greatly influenced the objective photographers.”
Chartres, Upper Deck, Premature End
In the spring of 1929 Sheeler and his wife traveled to Europe and visited Chartres Cathedral. Sheeler concentrated on photographing the south side where he shot 21 negatives, of which he later printed 14. These were artistic photographs, free of the restraints of commercial projects. It is a handsome and unconventional series.
In 1931, Sheeler reluctantly agreed to terminate his professional photography career. Sheeler did not have an exclusive gallery outlet when Edith Halpert of the highly prestigious Downtown Gallery in New York offered to exhibit and promote his paintings. But hers was a Faustian bargain. She firmly believed that Sheeler’s paintings sold slowly because the public perceived him as an important photographer who happened also to paint. As a condition for representing him, she insisted that Sheeler end his career as a professional photographer. Sheeler acquiesced.
Sheeler, like many other artists, had long used photography as a visual notepad to register images that he wanted to later paint or draw. For example, the 1920 drawing “Nude” illustrated in this article was based on a single frame of a film Sheeler shot in 1918. In 1929 Sheeler took a quantum jump when he painted “Upper Deck,” on loan to the current exhibition from Harvard’s Fogg Museum.
Rather than employing painterly lines, the image was rendered with the precision of a photograph. In the exhibition, the photograph and painting hang side-by-side, and visitors can see that the painting’s composition was exactly copied from the photograph. And yet the images differ in three significant ways. Sheeler introduced a somewhat surreal pinkish blue color to the painting that suggests a balmy day and warm atmosphere. He also eliminated deep shadows that disrupted the unity of individual objects in the photograph, retaining black shadows only in those locations suited to the graphics of the image. Sheeler also reduced contrast in the sky and on the deck so these tertiary elements retreat and primary objects command the visual field.
Through the remainder of his career, Sheeler continued using photography as a source for his paintings. “Upper Deck” was the first work in a school of painting that has become known as photorealism.
As curators went through more than 2,000 photographic prints, it became apparent to them that some of Sheeler’s post-1931 images created as utilitarian sketches had artistic merit of their own. Particularly noteworthy were photographs from the “Power Series” created in 1938 as studies for a painting series commissioned from Fortune magazine.
The Lane Collection
The Lane Collection lent all the photographs in the exhibition. Its holding of more than 2,000 Sheeler prints dwarfs all other collections of Sheeler photographs. While some commercial assignments such as the Ford River Rouge project, books and magazines resulted in extensive publications of Sheeler photographs, he usually printed very few copies of any single image. For example, he printed only a single print of each of his 12 nudes. After he and Stieglitz swapped photographic prints in 1917, Sheeler wrote back he would print three copies of the Doylestown images.
Curator Haas commented, “A handful of museums have five to ten Sheeler photographs — the Getty, the Museum of Modern Art, the Eastman Museum and Princeton. Some other museums have only a couple Sheeler prints. The Lane Collection has most of his negatives as well as the prints. Ford acquired the negatives of the River Rouge series in 1928, but they have since lost those negatives.”
William Lane and his first wife assembled a great collection of modern paintings, including some by Sheeler. While Bill and Saundra Lane later added to the painting collection, they also created an entirely new photography collection. The first purchase for that collection was the entire photographic oeuvre remaining in the estate of Charles Sheeler.
Bill Lane was an eccentric and fascinating person who maintained a low profile in his early years as a collector. By the 1960s he became a bit more public. On Saturdays he drove to central Massachusetts libraries in a station wagon with a stack of paintings piled in the back. The paintings were by then obscure artists such as Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Charles Sheeler. Lane pleaded with and cajoled librarians to allow him to hang several of those paintings in their reading rooms for a couple of months. Sometimes a librarian relented and allowed a work such as “Motorboat,” now acknowledged as Dove’s masterpiece, to hang in an obscure location.
The catalog for this exhibition will replace the 1987 Charles Sheeler: The Photographs as the primary reference work on the subject. Ted Stebbins, who curated both exhibitions and co-authored both catalogs, commented, “The 1987 book was my first photography adventure. I have learned a lot about the history of photography since then. Gilles Mora, who wrote one essay in the new catalog, is an internationally acclaimed expert in the field. The new catalog will be the definitive work on Sheeler’s photography.”
The new catalog is certain to incite intense passions, both positive and negative. The book printer superbly captured Sheeler’s original photographs. Insightful essays present fresh interpretations of Sheeler’s vital work in crisp, clear text.
The Sheeler exhibition is anticipated to be among the most widely viewed photography shows ever mounted. After the MFA show closes February 5, the exhibition will go on tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from June 3 to August 17. It will be featured in Winterthur, Switzerland, at the Fotomuseum from September 5 to November 2. It then will travel to Frankfurt, Germany, where it will be displayed at the Stadelsches und Kunstinstitut Galerie from February 4 to April 11, 2004. It will return to the United States and go on exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Art from September 8 to December 5, 2004. It will complete its run at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe from January 14 to May 1, 2005.
This exhibition is available with no additional fees beyond the cost of admission to the Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition is located in the Torf Gallery on the first floor of the west wing. Museum hours are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 10 am to 4:45 pm; Wednesday, 10 am to 9:45 pm; and Saturday and Sunday 10 am to 5:45 pm. For further information visit the website www.mfa.org or call 617-267-9300.
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