This exhibition celebrates the MFA’s unparalleled holdings of works by Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), presenting 40 photographs from three significant series created during the heyday of his career as a founder of American modernism.
After enjoying early success as a painter, Sheeler initially took up photography as a way to make a living. His earliest experiments with the medium included the 1916–17 series of photographs capturing various elements of an 18th-century house he rented in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The sequence of stark, geometric compositions was among the most abstract and avant-garde work being made in the US at the time—created in response to the Cubist art of Picasso and Braque that Sheeler had previously encountered in Europe.
In 1920, Sheeler collaborated with fellow photographer Paul Strand on the short film Manhatta, presenting dramatic views of lower Manhattan. Abstract stills from the 35mm film, which was shot from steep angles, are presented alongside larger prints of Sheeler’s cinematic images of New York City, produced shortly after Manhatta—which he used as source material for his paintings. The film Manhatta is on view in the gallery.
“Charles Sheeler from Doylestown to Detroit” culminates with the 1927 photographs of the Ford Motor Company plant in River Rouge, Michigan, commissioned to celebrate the introduction of Ford’s Model A. The cathedral-like scenes convey an optimism for American industry, and are now considered icons of Machine Age photography. All of the photographs in the exhibition are drawn from the Museum’s Lane Collection—one of the finest private holdings of 20th-century American art in the world, including Sheeler’s entire photographic estate—given to the MFA in 2012.