Whilst browsing images for another articles in the past few weeks, I stumbled upon a photograph of the below of a staircase. It struck me, for I as well can be fascinated with the strange angles within a normal setting, that can just shift your perception of the mundane and transform the usual lines of reality into something (be it temporarily) fascinating. You will realize that I too, have photographed the below of staircases but not as nicely or well-composed. The image belonged to Charles Sheeler, an American painter and photographer.
Charles Sheeler was born on the 16th of July, 1883 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He attended the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, now the University of the Arts (Philadelphia), from 1900 to 1903, and then the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under William Merritt Chase. He found early success as a painter and exhibited at the Macbeth Gallery in 1908. In 1909, he went to Paris, just when the popularity of Cubism was skyrocketing. Returning to the United States he realized that he would not be able to make a living with Modernist painting, so instead he took up commercial photography, focusing particularly on architectural subjects and documenting local buildings for architects. He was a self-taught photographer, learning his trade on a five dollar Brownie.
Sheeler owned a farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, about 39 miles outside Philadelphia. He shared it with his longtime friend the artist Morton Schamberg (1881–1918), who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.He was so fond of the home’s 19th century stove that he called it his “companion” and made it a subject of his photographs. The farmhouse serves a prominent role in many of his photographs, including shots of the bedroom and kitchen and stairway. Throughout the 1910s, Sheeler formed lasting professional relationships with several important figures in the New York art world, including Alfred Stieglitz and the artist and gallerist Marius de Zayas. He supplemented his income by photographing works of art for collectors (including Albert Barnes, John Quinn, and Walter and Louise Arensberg) and galleries (such as Knoedler & Company). He participated in important group shows, including the International Exhibition of Modern Art (commonly known as the Armory Show, 1913). During this decade, he also began using his own photographs as sources for paintings. Sheeler painted using a technique that complemented his photography. He was a self-proclaimed Precisionist, a term that emphasized the linear precision he employed in his depictions. As in his photographic works, his subjects were generally material things such as machinery and structures.
In 1920 he created the short film ‘Manhatta’ in collaboration with Paul Strand. The film took New York City as its subject, and emphasized the dramatic viewpoints and abstract compositions of a rapidly changing cityscape. In late 1927 and early 1928, Sheeler spent six weeks documenting the Ford Motor Company’s automobile plant in River Rouge, Michigan, as part of the promotional campaign for the release of the Model A Ford. Sheeler’s thirty-two photographs of the Ford plant depict its acres of gleaming, massive machinery, rather than the human process of labor. They celebrate the company’s—and, by association, America’s—ideals of power and productivity, although there is also a strangely forbidding atmosphere to the unpopulated scenes.
From 1926 through 1931, Sheeler worked as a freelance photographer, shooting celebrity portraits and fashion photography for Vogue and Vanity Fair. He ceased commercial photography in 1931, when the dealer Edith Halpert offered him exclusive representation at her Downtown Gallery in New York. As Sheeler attained broader recognition for his precise yet evocative interpretations of utilitarian forms, he continued to attract prestigious commissions. In 1935–36, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller invited him to photograph the architecture of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. In 1939–40, he traveled across the country on assignment for Fortune magazine, photographing locations for a series of paintings on the theme of “Power.” The six finished paintings depicted icons of American industry such as airplanes, locomotives, power plants, and dams.
Sheeler worked for the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Publications from 1942 to 1945, photographing a wide range of works from the collection, including Assyrian reliefs, classical Greek and Roman sculpture, European painting, and Chinese objects. Ever since his student days, he had taken a keen interest in the past as it related to the art of the present; he was quoted as saying, “All the arts we revere come out of the main trunk. An underlying current goes through all the way to Renaissance, Egyptian, Chinese, back to cave painting.”
As he entered the 1950s, Sheeler developed a distinctive late style. He still depicted urban architecture and industrial facilities, but he reduced objects to flat planes, rather than volumes, and pared away more detail than ever before. In works such as Golden Gate, he also devised complex, multiple-viewpoint compositions by overlapping two or more photographic negatives of the same subject and then transferring the resulting, synthesized image to canvas. In these later years, Sheeler’s art was the subject of several retrospective exhibitions. After he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1959, Sheeler was no longer able to make art; his life was ended by another stroke in 1965. He left behind a body of work that explored the balance between abstraction and representation, photography and painting, an increasingly mechanized present and a more homespun past, uniting all these aspects in a skillful (and occasionally ambivalent) tension.
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