Sheeler was trained as a painter at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and throughout his life that is what he chiefly considered himself to be. For the most part, art history tends to treat him the same way. The show of Sheeler's photography that runs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Feb. 2, then moves to New York City, Frankfurt and Detroit, is the first major museum exhibition devoted entirely to his work with a camera. Organized by Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. and Gilles Mora, it's an enjoyable reminder that Sheeler was in the first ranks of American photographers. As a painter, he now seems less adventurous than quasi-abstractionists of the same era, such as Arthur Dove and Stuart Davis. As a photographer, he was fearless.
Maybe it helped that Sheeler took up photography nonchalantly around 1910, when he was 27 and simply looking for a way to earn extra money by making documentary and commercial photographs of grand suburban houses. But it didn't take him long to see the larger possibilities of this new toy. During a trip to Europe a few years before, he was converted to the work of Picasso and Braque. (He was soon well enough established as a painter that six of his canvases were included in the Armory Show of 1913, which brought the work of the European avant-garde to America, along with a lasting public uproar over whether modern art was art.) What Sheeler gradually realized was that the camera could find in the real world the fractured spaces of Picasso and the flat planes of Matisse. It could produce a picture of the side of a barn in which nothing had been altered but everything appeared abstract. It could give the old hat a fresh tilt.
Between 1915 and 1917, he began to photograph an 18th century farmhouse in Bucks County, Pa., that he rented as a weekend retreat, as well as the old barns in the surrounding countryside. In a photograph like Doylestown House, Stairs from Below, in which the underside of a cellar stairway forms a hard-edged, spiraling abstraction, he was drawing connections between the most radical modernism and old traditions of American art and life. What his picture hints is that the 20th century had a backstairs connection to the 19th. Sheeler suspected, and he was right, that a Pennsylvania farmhouse drew upon the same instinct for clarity and simplicity as a Cezanne, that modernism was not a break with the past but an excavation of its underlying structures.
By the 1920s, Sheeler had begun to think of the industrial landscape, even at its most unromantic sheds and conveyor belts, assembly lines and smokestacks as a place as beautiful as any farm country. It was a materialist faith with a long American pedigree, one that had found its way into the plainspoken art of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins in the 19th century. Its essence was summed up for the 20th in the dictum of the poet William Carlos Williams, who was an acquaintance of Sheeler's and once sat for his camera: "No ideas but in things."
In 1927 the Ford Motor Co. commissioned Sheeler to spend six weeks photographing Ford's immense new River Rouge assembly plant near Detroit. Ford Plant, River Rouge, Criss-Crossed Conveyors, one of the most famous images in 20th century photography, divides the plant into a multitude of planes, angles and openings with an unmistakable resemblance to the buttresses and steeples of a soaring medieval church. It's no surprise that the next lengthy photo series that Sheeler worked on was a study of the great French cathedral at Chartres. He had already treated the Ford plant as a house of God.
Sheeler approached his blunt industrial locales in a rapture that could only produce a new Romanticism, the Romance of the Machine Age. In Power Series, Wheels, his 1939 picture of a locomotive wheel assembly, Sheeler wants you to admire the hard new beauty of a plain steel mechanism. But there's no mistaking the libidinous headway in this picture. Those muscular steel drive shafts, that little spurt of steam in the lower right Sheeler's superchief is as full of winking sex as Marcel Duchamp's Great Glass. It's also funnier because it keeps such a straight face.
Sheeler didn't spend all his time admiring machines. In 1918 or 1919 he made a short film of his future first wife Katharine, positioning her nude body in complicated ways for the camera. The film is lost, but Sheeler printed 10 frames separately as photographs. They are unforgettable. Folded into shelves of plump tissue, her limbs cutting across her torso like wide interstates, Katharine is a nude unlike any other in photography until Lee Friedlander's contorted women of the 1970s. It's not enough to say these pictures are experiments in form, though the ways in which Sheeler had in mind the broken crockery of Cubism or the elastic women of Matisse are pretty plain. These are also loving pictures, so long as you keep in mind how often one brings to a lover's interesting body the problems of estrangement, awe, fear of death, utmost tenderness and ruthless curiosity all things he brought to Katharine's. Are they also beautiful? Absolutely.