A photographic pioneer gets his due

Sheeler was the first to apply abstract principles to photos

Few have done so much for American art to so little acclaim.

As both a painter and photographer, Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) is one of America's pioneering modernists. Yet he is often cast as a niche player, a master "Precisionist" (Sheeler coined the term), or a painter of passionless industrial images.

"The Photography of Charles Sheeler: American Modernist," new retrospective of his photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until Feb. 2, shows that machinery was never Sheeler's muse. Rather, it is structure that enthralls him. The exhibit is the first major survey of Sheeler's brief but groundbreaking photography career.

The retrospective presents 120 images, most dating from 1915 to 1930, when Sheeler was exploring the potential of the medium and, along the way, creating a distinctly American canon.

He was the first photographer to apply European principles of Cubism and abstraction to an entirely American vernacular. Born from an American love of the particular and real, Sheeler's photographs mine the poetry of form in objects of daily life. His transcendent images are simultaneously precise descriptions and revelatory abstractions.

Whether his lens is trained on a barn, a blast furnace, or the band of light across a Shaker table, his true subject is the joy of seeing.

"Some consider Sheeler a cold, rational machine-age artist," says Theodore Stebbins Jr., who curated the retrospective with Gilles Mora and Karen Haas. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

The son of a Philadelphia shipping executive, Sheeler studied painting under an esteemed Impressionist, William Merritt Chase. But a 1908 trip to Paris opened the teenager's eyes to Braque and Matisse. "I was pointed to an entirely new concept of a picture," Sheeler wrote in an unpublished memoir.

Five years later, Sheeler showed six of his Cubist-inspired canvases at the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York. The night before the show, he photographed his paintings alongside reproductions of works by his heroes, Picasso and Cézanne.

The young painter took up photography to earn a living. He began by documenting architecture and works of art for prosperous clients such as Manhattan collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. Among their avant-garde holdings was the Armory's showstopper, "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2" (1912) by Marcel Duchamp.

Instead of reproducing reality, Sheeler set out to inventively probe its "underlying structures." At first, he regarded photography as "a necessary evil," but soon discovered that, with the camera, he could achieve "an exactitude ... which no other medium can approximate."

Nowhere has its precision been better exploited than in "Side of White Barn" (1915). Sheeler creates a depthless Cubist composition out of vertical, sun-bleached planks. "It is the first completely successful modern photograph in America," says Stebbins.

Sheeler's barn anticipates the tactile, sun-baked surfaces that Harry Callahan would photograph in the '80s. And his semi-abstract images pave the way for Edward Weston's nautilus shells and nudes.

Sheeler extended his newly adopted medium, freely cropping and layering negatives while his contemporaries insisted on printing theirs whole. He began to use negatives as "blue prints" for his paintings, which gradually gained the precision of photographs.

Preferring multiple views to a single panorama, Sheeler shot a long view of his subject and then photographed it at close range from many angles. The process allowed him to experience a painter's sustained encounter with a subject.

All of Sheeler's major series are in the exhibition, including his elegant, minimalist photographs of African masks, and his renowned Ford Plant, River Rouge series of 1927, images that immediately became icons of industrial art. On view as both a film and a series of stills is "Manhatta" (1920), the six-minute silent movie Sheeler made with Paul Strand celebrating the pulsing energy of a young Manhattan and its builders.

In his sublime "South Salem, Living Room" (1929), a band of light crosses the surface of a Shaker table like a balance beam. At its midpoint is a glass jar with the pristine translucence of a Vermeer pearl. Hanging just to the right is Sheeler's latest painting, "Upper Deck."

"This is what I had been getting ready for," he wrote.

In 1931, Sheeler gave up photography to establish himself as a painter. "View of New York" (1931) conveys his ambivalence. In the painting, a shroud covers his camera. But behind this elegiac image, a window opens to the sky.

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