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The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist

September 8 - December 5, 2004


The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) will present The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist, the first major retrospective to focus exclusively on the artist's photographic work, from September 8 to December 5, 2004. The exhibition includes more than 100 works -- several with unique ties to the city of Detroit -- including a series of the Ford Motor Company's plant at River Rouge (1927); documentation of American industry created for Fortune magazine in the late 1930s; photographs of African sculpture (1916-18); images of Chartres Cathedral (1929); the film Manhatta accompanied by stills of New York City (1920); and images of Sheeler's house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (1916-17). (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, Blast Furnace and Dust Catcher - Ford Plant, 1927; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection.)

Visitors to the DIA will have the rare opportunity to explore Sheeler's River Rouge series less than 10 miles from the Ford plant where they were shot, and at the home of Diego Rivera's renowned Detroit Industry murals from the same period, permanently on view in the DIA's Rivera Court. Detroit will also be the only venue to exhibit a full-scale photographic recreation of Sheeler's four-by-seven-foot mural Industry (1932), depicting scenes from the Rouge plant. In addition, the Detroit presentation will feature works from the DIA's collection, such as: African masks that complement Sheeler's early photographs of African sculpture; and Wheels (1939), which was published in Fortune in 1940 as part of a study on power in America, and acquired by the DIA for a record auction price in 1983.

"Sheeler's innovation in merging art and industry was as revolutionary as the era itself," said Graham W. J. Beal, DIA director. "Hosting this important exhibition at the DIA is especially relevant given Detroit's industrial background and the fact that the museum is home to another important work of the Ford River Rouge plant, Rivera's incomparable Detroit Industry murals."


Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Plant and Detroit Industry

An entire gallery will be devoted to images Sheeler shot at the River Rouge plant in 1927, on the occasion of the introduction of the new Ford Model A. Sheeler was commissioned to photograph the plant in Dearborn, Michigan as part of a larger $1.3 million advertising campaign. The Rouge, named after a nearby river, was the largest industrial complex in the world, distinguished by its independence from outside suppliers. (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, Criss-Crossed Conveyors - Ford Plant, 1927; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection.)

During Sheeler's six-week stay at the 1,100 acre plant, the artist struggled to make visual sense of such a vast enterprise, finally deciding to document details of the operation and make portraits of machinery, rather than panoramic views of the factory and its famous assembly line. The series, consisting of fewer than 40 photographs, is regarded as the high point of machine-age photography. In 2000, Ford renovated the Rouge Plant and reinstated public tours, providing an opportunity for those who might want to see the source of Sheeler's renowned photographs.

The DIA has also commissioned the first ever recreation of Sheeler's mural Industry (1932), which was originally installed in the 1932 exhibition Murals by American Painters and Photographers at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This portrayal of Detroit industry, together with the DIA's Rivera murals will offer insight into how both artists responded to this subject, with Sheeler stressing process over individuals and Rivera focusing on the human aspect.


Chartres, Americana, and the Power Series

The exhibition also reveals Sheeler's characteristic emphasis on architectural detail through his photographic series of Chartres Cathedral; the interiors of his homes, with their antique and Shaker furnishings; and the Shaker meetinghouse in Mt. Lebanon, New York. The DIA's Sheeler painting, Home Sweet Home (1931), will offer insight into how the artist's work in photography influenced his painting.

In the late 1930s, Fortune magazine commissioned Sheeler to create a series of paintings on the theme of power in America. The exhibition includes striking photographic studies for these paintings taken during his travels in the United States to such places as the Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley.


Manhatta, Views of New York, and Nudes

The groundbreaking short film Manhatta (made by Sheeler and Paul Strand in 1920), along with the series of still images derived from the film, are included in the exhibition. The six-minute film spans an imaginary day in the life of New York City and has been described as the first avant-garde film made in America. Fourteen extant still photographs from Manhatta, and eight photographs from Sheeler's New York Park Row Building series reflect Sheeler's focus on the details of urban life. Also on view will be a selection of increasingly abstract nude stills of Sheeler's first wife Katharine -- the only nude photographs he is known to have taken during his career. (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, New York, Park Row Building, 1920; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection.)


Photography of Works of Art

Photographing works of art from a spectrum of cultures was a formative experience for Sheeler as he came to believe that all great art grew out of the same tradition. The DIA will feature Sheeler's powerful photographs of African art (1916-18) juxtaposed with African sculpture from the museum's collection, as well as Sheeler's photographs of works by such artists as Marcel Duchamp, Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso.


Bucks County and the Doylestown House

Images by Sheeler taken in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, including the radically modern Side of White Barn (1915) and others taken at the artist's weekend retreat in Doylestown, mark Sheeler's first extended foray into artistic photography. The photographs of the house -- of utilitarian subjects such as stoves, windows, doors and abstractions of the central staircase -- show the clear influence of Cubism in Sheeler's work. (right: Charles Sheeler, American, 1883-1965, Wheels, 1939; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Lane Collection. )


Exhibition Organizer and Sponsors

The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist was organized by Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr., former curator of American paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and current curator of American Art at Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum; Gilles Mora, an independent French curator; and Karen Haas, curator of The Lane Collection at the MFA, Boston. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue. All photographs are drawn from The Lane Collection.


Editor's note: Resource Library readers may also enjoy other articles and essays on American photography of the:

+ audio clips:

Accompanying the page on the J. Paul Getty Museum web site for the exhibition Three Roads Taken: The Photographs of Paul Strand, showing May 10 - September 4, 2005, an audio clip explains how Strand incorporated modernist ideas into "Still Life with Pear." Other clips talk about Strand's message in "Blind Woman," the photographer's interest in rural Scotland in the photograph titled "White Horse, South Uist," and how strand created the image "Seated Man, Uruapan del Progreso Michoacan, Mexico."

The page for the exhibit The Photographs of Frederick Sommer: A Centennial Tribute, showing May 10 - September 4, 2005, contains three audio clips interpreting the photographer's images.

The page for the photography exhibit Close to Home: An American Album showing October 12, 2004 - January 16, 2005 contains an audio clip with curator Weston Naef introducing the exhibition.

The National Gallery of Art offers on its web site Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception. Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs, talks about works by celebrated nineteenth-century photographer Carleton Watkins, on view in the first major exhibition of Watkin's work in 20 years. Aired March 11, 2000. (description courtesy NGA)

The WGBH/Boston Forum Network Archives contains a series of 22 original WGBH/FM radio essays by leading thinkers in the 20th Century on the nature of creativeness in American arts, sciences, and professions. One of the essays is titled Creative Method: Edward Steichen on Photography, with Lyman Bryson interviewing Edward Steichen, photographer and painter. [December 31, 1969]


+ online videos:

The WGBH/Boston Forum Network includes a number of videos on Art and Architecture. Partners include a number of Boston-area museums, colleges, universities and other cultural organizations.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston partnered with the Forum Network for Modern Art in America, (43 minutes) in which Heather Cotter, Museum of Fine Arts Gallery Lecturer, gives an overview of the roots of American modern art using examples from the Museum's collection. This talk in the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts investigates the foundations of modern art in America, focusing on works by Georgia O'Keefe, Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, and Stuart Davis. [September 28, 2003]

The Museum of Afro-American History partnered with the Forum Network for Looking For Mr. Gilbert: African-American Photographer, a lecture by John Hanson Mitchell., author, presents slides of works by Robert Alexander Gilbert, who was a 19th century African American artist. Mitchell talks about the life of this unassuming Renaissance man who took haunting photos of the Boston landscape and its people. [March 30., 2005]

The J. Paul Getty Museum's web site, as of April 2005, provides over twenty videos, including collection tours, behind the scenes conservation methods for various types of art, installations, artist conversations, and the making of several types of art in a "Video Gallery" that uses RealPlayer. In the Video Gallery's "behind the Scenes" section a 3-minute video is named "Hockney: Pearblossiom Highway" and features David Hockney explaining the inspiration for one of his creations. Another 3-minute video named "Photographs Overview" discusses photography as art.

Accompanying the page for the exhibit The Photographs of Frederick Sommer: A Centennial Tribute, showing May 10 - September 4, 2005, is a video explaining how Sommer transformed objects using photography.

Included in the page for the exhibit All the Mighty World: The Photographs of Roger Fenton, 1852­1860, on exhibit February 1 through Aprl 24, 2005, a video shows how Fenton photographed the Crimean War.

Accompanying the page for the exhibit Walker Evans: Before + After, on exhibit July 10 - October 28, 2001, a 4 1/2-minute video introduces the exhibition and another 4 1/2-minute video features Walker Evans in His Own Words.

The PBS American Masters series includes a documentary concerning Alfred Stieglitz. PBS's web site offers a page that includes eight video clips from four to nine minutes in length not found in the original documentary. Stieglitz-experts in the clips include Historian Thomas Bender; Alan Trachtenberg, Professor of American Studies at Yale; Richard Whelan, Stieglitz Biographer; Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Curator at Philips Gallery; Sarah Greenough, Curator of Photographs, National Gallery of Art; Joanna Steichen, Author, and widow of Edward Steichen; Sue Davidson-Lowe, author and grand-niece of Stieglitz; and Wanda Corn, art historian at Stanford.

More from American Masters:


+ VHS and DVD videos:

Alfred Stieglitz, Photographer is a 30 minute 1998 video by Paul Falkenberg, Museum at Large, Ltd. from the Museum of Modern Art Collectors series produced by Kultur Video -- This film profile is narrated by friends and artists who knew Stieglitz well: Ansel Adams, Aaron Copland, Isamu Noguchi, and others. Red Ribbon, American Film Festival.

"Celebrates the achievements of a seminal figure in the history of photography and of modern art in America, Alfred Stieglitz (1864--1946). Drawn from Stieglitz' own observations and reminiscences of various people who knew him well, including Ansel Adams, Mary Steichen Calderone, Harold Clurman, Aaron Copland, Arnold Newman, and Isamu Noguchi." [1]




Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye is a 90 minute 2000 American Masters series WNET video directed by Perry Miller Adato.

From the Back Cover: "Stieglitz, who is revered as one of the most innovative photographers of the 20th century, played a primary role in fostering new talent. Through his three galleries in New York City, he mentored emerging artists such as Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and Georgia O'Keeffe; and introduced avant-garde Europeans such as Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Rodin and Pablo Picasso.... This revealing look at "The Father of Modern Photography" features a rare interview with Georgia O'Keeffe, Stieglitz's wife and muse, as well as archival footage of other artistic giants he inspired, including Edward Steichen and John Marin. Additionally, the film presents countless images from the Stieglitz archives, ranging from early European peasant life to later views of New York's urban landscape."

"Surveys the life and achievements of Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) who played a major role in introducing America to modern art while championing the elevation of photography as an art form. Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe were just a few of the first wave of American artists whom Stieglitz mentored through his three influential galleries in New York City. It was there also that he introduced America to European masters Matisse, Cezanne, Rodin and Picasso. At the same time he was exhibiting the best artists of the period, Stieglitz' own impressive body of photographic work firmly established him as one of the leading artists of the 20th century." [1] VHS/DVD

Andre Kertesz is a 30-minute video from the Masters of Photography series. A fascinating glimpse of Kertesz in his Washington Square apartment, spreading his images on the dining room table and talking about how they came into being. A rare look at one of the masters of photography. (video description courtesy of International Center of Photography)






Annie Leibovitz: Celebrity Photographer is a portrait of the celebrated portrait photographer known for her famous subjects. Annie Leibovitz began her professional career at Rolling Stone and became Vanity Fair's first contributing photographer, and one of the highest paid photographers of our day. VHS/DVD. This 51 minute 1993 program produced by RM Arts; Middlemarch Films from the South Bank Show series, produced for London Weekend Television, contains nudity and explicit language and is directed by Rebecca Frayn.








Ansel Adams is a 100 minute 2002 American Experience PBS Home Video directed by Ric Burns and Narrated by David Ogden Stiers. From Warner Home Video. Ansel Adams's photographs have made him one of the most recognized and admired names in art. A staunch environmentalist, the pictures that Adams took reflected a larger world view the photographer held to strongly.




Behind the Scenes Series, Carrie Mae Weems is a 30 minute 1999. video released by First Run Features based on a series by PBS. Presents American photographer Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) demonstrating how she decides what to photograph. Discusses how subject matter and composition combine to create meaning in a photograph. The noted photographer, with help from William Wegman, shows how to use composition and content in a photograph. A behind the scenes look. 30-minute video, guide [1]






Diane Arbus is a 30-minute video concerning the photographer Diane Arbus. A pivotal figure in contemporary documentary photography, Diane Arbus produced a substantial body of work before her suicide in 1971. This portrait features footage of her lecturing to a small class she held in her apartment and interviews with her daughter.









Edward J. Steichen is a 1998 Museum of Modern Art by J. Thiltges from Kultur Video. "Considered by many to be the greatest portrait photographer of the 20th Century. He was a major cultural force of the modem age not only photographing prominent figures but reinventing modern fashion and war photography. Silver Award, Houston Film Festival. " (quote from Media for the Arts - www.art-history.com)



Edward Steichen is a 30-minute video from teh masters of Photography series. Steichen was 86 in 1964 when he was interviewed for this film. He discusses his unbelievably long and varied career, including fine art, fashion, portrait, combat, and aerial photography. (video description courtesy of International Center of Photography)







John Szarkowski: A Life in Photography is a 47-minute video produced by Richard B. Woodward. Checkerboard Foundation, 1998. For nearly 30 years, from 1962-1991, John Szarkowski served as the Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This film examines his double life as curator and photographer. Szarkowski, author of the classic "Looking at Photographs," has taught generations how to think about and look at images. (video description courtesy of International Center of Photography)





John Szarkowski on the Photography of Ansel Adams is a 47-minute DVD. During his nearly three-decade tenure as Director of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art, Szarkowski recast the world's thinking about the art of photography. His radically new conception of the medium's possibilities - and its limitations - has influenced critics, historians, theorists, and photographers ever since. In this lecture on Ansel Adams, Szarkowski tackles the deeper significance of Adams' work beyond his enduring popularity as an environmental pioneer and rhapsodist of the American West. (video description courtesy of International Center of Photography)




Ralph Gibson is a 2002 28-minute video. For more than thirty years Ralph Gibson has served as one of the few truly independent forces within the art of photography. In this video biography, Gibson discusses his life and is forthcoming about what, why and how he shoots, the editorial decisions that dictate the laying out and putting together of his books, and the crucial point when he knows if a body of work is or is not complete.







Roots of California Photography: The Monterey Legacy, The was produced and directed by Steven Rosen and Terri De Bono of Mac and Ava Motion Pictures. Script written by Steven Hauk. Photographers included are Edward, Brett and Cole Weston, Wynn and Edna Bullock, Ansel Adams, Morley Baer, Henry Gilpin, John Sexton, Richard Garrod, Sonya Noskowiak, Margrethe Mather, Ruth Bernhard, among others.





Walker Evans: America, is a 57-minute profile of the great American photographer, Walker Evans, the first photographer to have a one-man retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. This video contains rare interviews with Evans himself, recorded in the late 1960's. (video description courtesy of International Center of Photography)







Andre Kertesz: 30 minutes 1989 "Andre Kertesz, "the father of 35 millimeter photography," was born in Hungary in 1894 and lived in the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s before emigrating to the United States just before World War II. Long before every home had a camera, his work embodied the spirit of what the world now calls candid photography: personal, mobile, unposed. This documentary presents Kertesz in his own words, explaining his pictures and sharing his memories -- provincial life in Hungary, central Europe in World War I, famous friends like Colette, Einstein, Chagall, and Mondriaan, and details of the poetry of human life."[1] Also titled Everything Is Photograph: A Profile of Andre Kertesz from Camera Three Productions

Ansel Adams, Photographer 60 minutes "This film captures the spirit and artistry of the man as he talks about his life and demonstrates the techniques that have made his work legendary. As Adams talks of the country he loves, viewers glimpse his photographs juxtaposed with the landscapes he photographed. In a conversation with artist Georgia O'Keeffe, Adams discusses his association with her husband, pioneer photographer Alfred Steiglitz." "Outlines the long and prolific career of American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) as an artist, conservationist, and teacher. Follows him to the locations of his most famous photographs, including Yosemite." [2] By John Huszar. 1986 (available through Las Positas College Library)

Dorothea Lange: American Photographer  is a 13 minute, PPR 1988 video. "Trained as a portrait photographer in San Francisco, Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) abandoned her studio in the 1930s and began documenting the effects of the Depression on ordinary Americans. Her images spoke eloquently of the plight of the poor and brought the desperation of the Depression into the consciousness of the public. Her last exhibition, a retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1965, was a tribute to the human face. Lange's photographs remain singular symbols of America's 'Dust Bowl' era."

Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life is a 50 minute 1995 film directed by: Meg Partridge. The great photographer is revealed through examples of her work and interviews with both the artist and her family. Lange was pivotal to the development of documentary photography traditions and her work remains an aesthetic achievement that continues to inspire photographers today. "A tapestry of candid, often conflicting insights into the photographer Dorothea Lange's life and art. Lange reveals her philosophical approach to photography, her passion for her medium and the conflicts in her work and family life. We are taken into Lange's confidence as she strives to maker photographs emotionally charged as well as historically accurate. The result is an engaging portrait of this extraordinary and complex visual artist." (Arkansas Humanities Council)

Photography in 19th-Century America Traces the development of photography in the U.S. from the introduction of daguerreotypes in 1839 through the invention of the Kodak camera by George Eastman in 1888. 23-minute video. Description source: Amon Carter Museum

Richard Avedon, Darkness and Light Profiles American photographer Richard Avedon (b.1923) through interweaving extensive interviews with himself, his family, friends, and clients. Includes photographs from every phase of his career 87-minute video. Description source: Amon Carter Museum

This Is Edward Steichen: 25 minutes 1965. "This film includes examples of Edward Steichen's masterful photographs and a warm, personal interview with the 86-year-old photographer in his Connecticut home. He expresses his feelings about painting and photography and describes his recollections about meeting and photographing such great figures as Auguste Rodin and Greta Garbo."

Time Exposure: William H. Jackson, Picture Maker of the Old West Presents photographs of the American West including mountains, railroads, and mining towns made during the late 19th century by photographer William Henry Jackson (1843--1942). Reenacts demonstrations of glass-plate photography, developing, and solar printing. Narrated by actor Burgess Meredith. 26-minute video. Description source: Amon Carter Museum

rev. 8/23/05

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