Charles Sheeler, the Philadelphia-born painter and photographer, was a go-to guy for images of America’s emerging industrial might. You probably know his famous photographs of Ford Motor Co.’s sprawling River Rouge even if you don’t know who made them. And his paintings of industrial landscapes and heavy machinery are unforgettable visions of a dynamic and exciting, albeit dehumanized modern world.
“Charles Sheeler: Fashion, Photography, and Sculpture Form,” on view at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown through July 9, seems to upend such expectations. Here, heavy steel machinery plays second fiddle to lightweight jersey, draped silk, and helmetlike women’s hats. From 1925 to 1931, Sheeler was a prolific photographer for the magazines Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 1927 alone, he had 133 photos published in Vogue. Though that work has hardly been a secret, it has also been largely unexamined.
Now, Kirsten M. Jensen, the Michener’s chief curator, acting on a tip from her mother, has unearthed the original photographs in the archives of publisher Condé Nast and made them the centerpiece of an extraordinary show. It makes the case that, though Sheeler complained bitterly about the pressures and the pettiness of working for a fashion magazine, he made many pictures that are well worth a second look.
The show and its accompanying catalog argue, for example, that Sheeler’s image of tango dancers with crossed arms presaged the famous image of crisscrossed conveyor belts he made at River Rouge a few months later.
In order to understand Sheeler, the show tells us, we need to look at the women in dresses along with the steam turbines. This may make the exhibition seem akin to the stunt Sheeler pulled when he did a sequence of photographs of a well-known boxer — in evening dress and demonstrating how to dance the Charleston. But, in fact, the fashion world of looks, styles, and frocks is as much a part of the modern world as a plant that mass-produces cars. The photographs in this exhibition show Sheeler trying to capture the space, the freedom, the disorientation, and the excitement of life in a modern consumer society.
His photos, especially those he did for Vogue, were required to provide clear, reliable information on line, cut, fabric and texture, but they are not realistic photos. Their precision is that of dreams. They do not exist in a conventional space but an abstract one, influenced by cubism and psychology.
The work actually began when Sheeler was asked to takes pictures of collections of sculpture and other objects. The key image here is a 1917 photo of an African musical instrument mounted on a base. Using overlapping beams of light of varying intensity, Sheeler creates contrasting shadows that reveal aspects of its complex curving form that are not visible from head on. By showing these multiple perspectives within a single two-dimensional image, Sheeler fulfills the promise of cubism, but in a way that feels matter-of-fact.
This photo, with its crossing and overlapping vectors of light falling on contrasting surfaces, provided the model for much that came after. You can see it in gentler, more sophisticated form in a 1928 photo of Ziegfeld Follies star Bobbe Arnst. She stands in the corner of a high room, on the diagonal axis of a checkered floor. Behind her is a part-open door, leading to a dark space, and other walls, each with its own tone. Two shadows of her — one large, one small — loom to her left and right. Her body is composed and compact, in an attitude of confident wondering. She is an engaging woman, but also a kind of product, as we all become in commercial culture.
Her gaze is direct, which is characteristic of Sheeler’s photos of professional entertainers, but not of his fashion work. Professional models were rare at the time, so magazines found young socialites to pose in their dresses. In most cases, Sheeler encouraged them to look toward something outside the frame, preserving their dignity and adding a bit of mystery to the women, not all of whom were beautiful. Usually, the background is an indistinct mixture of darkness and light.
The images are cool, yet there is a surprising intensity to them. Jensen argues that these women are depicted in almost exactly the same way Sheeler showed flowers in his still life paintings.
Jensen says the diffidence of these photos has been attributed to Sheeler’s own shy personality. But when Sheeler was taking photos in which the most important element in the pictures is the person — not the hat or the dress — he was capable of psychological depth. His portrait of the writer Aldous Huxley uses the same sort of abstract space, and clearly shows the pattern of Huxley’s trousers and the softness of his jacket. But here the eyes gaze intensely from beneath his deeply shadowed brow. He seems a man with deep and unsettling thoughts — as, indeed, he was.
My one serious reservation about the show is its department-store-inspired installation, in which mannequins stand on platforms, in front of photo blowups of details from some of Sheeler’s best-known paintings. Some of the original photographs are mounted on the walls, atop the photos of paintings. I understand the reasoning: the original prints are small and of uniform size. The gallery is big. Showing vintage dresses adds to popular appeal.
There is one spot where this approach is fully justified: A mannequin wearing a reproduction of a dress made with fabric that Sheeler himself designed stands in front of reproductions of two famous Sheeler paintings. Nearby is a photograph showing a woman in such a dress standing in front of the same two photos.
As someone who has written articles and even a book on window dressing, it seems as though I ought to like this approach, and I probably wouldn’t mind if I saw it in a store. But when a museum hangs an original photo against a mural, it dissipates the power of both images. And when you do it to Sheeler, whose backgrounds are about complex, ambiguous lighting of unadorned architecture, it seems as though those who installed the show didn’t understand it at all.
Through July 9 at the Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine Street, Doylestown. Tickets: $18, adults; $16, students; $8, children 6-18; free for children under 6. Information: 215-340-9800 or michenerartmuseum.org.