Updated: Apr 20, 2020
Charles Sheeler was a pioneer in American Modernism and, while he was trained in painting and drawing, he also had a career in commercial and fine art photography. His photography work featured brilliantly elaborate compositions that, while complicated, always highlighted a primary feature of narrative element. His photography work began as he freelanced, shooting work for architects, thus the highly industrial feel of his work. He then began shooting the inside of his house, experimenting with composition; this is where he really began to pursue the fine art side of photography. Sheeler began exhibiting his photographs alongside his paintings, signalling that he believed the two mediums had similar merit. This is where a fascinating comparison of image and style come about. A comparison that can be most effectively examined when looking at the 1928 gelatin silver print photograph Upper Deck and the 1929 painting of the same name.
The photograph is of the S.S. Majestic, which he was commissioned to shoot after the success of his photos highlighting industry at Ford’s River Rouge Plant. Like the photos he’d taken in the previous year, Sheeler celebrates the mechanisms of the ship, opting not to show it in its entirety but instead focusing on its motors, ventilator stacks, and exhaust fans. It’s been said that Sheeler was looking to show the abstract elements of the ship’s structure and one could clearly see why he was after that. The image is interestingly framed because it shows just enough to reveal that it is some sort of mechanism but at the same time the closeness of the shot doesn’t allow the whole scope of the ship to be revealed and in a lot of ways this massive structure just blends into shapes. This breaking down of a machine into its basic shapes is highlighted by shadows accentuating the corners and edges of some shapes but breaking the planes of others and merging shapes and forms together. Sheeler really strips this machine of its function and presents in it a totally new and raw way.
It’s no surprise that one year later Sheeler would revisit such an interesting photograph to turn it into a painting. He works in color here as opposed to the black and white of the photo, but the way he allows the soft, muted colors of the sky to gently reflect off of the white mechanism flattens the colors out in a way similar to how black and white photos flatten the color of an image. In a lot of ways the painting represents the same qualities as the photograph but there are subtle differences here. The first is small but its purpose is interesting and it’s that he chose not to represent the bolts and rivets that hold the mechanism together. It’s not exactly clear why Sheeler chose not to use this element but it could be that it accentuates that breaking down of a machine into its basic shapes and structures that was mentioned in the photograph. Eliminating this small element removes a very recognizable feature of some sort of machinery and allows the shapes of the structure to break apart and merge differently, Sheeler is really breaking the viewer’s understanding of the image down and trying to present something different. The second big change that Sheeler made has a similar effect and it’s that he greatly softened the shadows of the photograph in his painted representation. While the harsh shadows of the photo allow the machine to be broken down into shapes, things are still very rigid as the harsh, dark shadows contrast the soft gray tone of the photo immensely. In his painting Sheeler really softens these shadows out which allows the shapes of the painting to first blend together before they break apart, revealing another level of interaction between the shapes.
It’s really amazing how Sheeler can take a rather simple image and soften it into a painting that’s so deep and intriguing. It’s rare that a monochrome painting of some machines can have such a lasting effect. This piece would go on to be a cornerstone in development for Sheeler’s work as he would go on to strip down images even further, flattening images down to basic colors and shapes. Sheeler really seeks to break down the elements of what he sees, right down to basic colors and shapes, this made for some marvelously expressive works later on in his career. But, some of the most interesting and valued works are those that reflect his photography and break down images in an expressive, but softly representative way.