Photography formed the foundation of his pictorial expression, however, especially in the early years of his career, as his next series—Nudes (1918–19)—revealed. On view is the complete set of semi-abstract photographs of his first wife Katharine—the only nude photographs Sheeler is known to have taken—which were created from a now-lost film produced in about 1918 with a 35mm hand-cranked movie camera.
Also on continuous view in the galleries is the groundbreaking Manhatta, made by Sheeler and Paul Strand in 1920 and considered the first American avant-garde film. In about ten minutes, Manhatta spans an imaginary day in the life of New York City, beginning with footage of Staten Island Ferry commuters and culminating with the sun setting over the Hudson River. Brief shots and dramatic camera angles emphasize the city's photogenic disposition. Fourteen still photographs made from the footage are featured in the exhibition. Shortly after making the film, Sheeler produced large-format photographs of New York—seven views of Broadway that employ a particularly cinematic effect. One of the photographs, New York, Park Row Building (1920), intones a visual duet with the painting Skyscrapers (1922, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.) which was displayed alongside it.
The exhibition also includes an extensive selection of the images Sheeler made at the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant, near Detroit, in 1927. Created to celebrate the introduction of the Model A automobile, this series is regarded by many as the high point of American machine-age photography. Criss-Crossed Conveyors—one of Sheeler's best-known works and an icon of modern photography—is featured alongside such images as Pulverizer Building and Blast Furnace Interior. Sheeler documented the many functional design elements of the vast complex, conveying the mysterious beauty of the machines rather than trying to capture the expanse of the plant. The River Rouge pictures make a fascinating contrast with Sheeler's views of Chartres Cathedral made in France in 1929, also featured in the exhibition. Consistent with his modernist approach, Sheeler chose to focus on the Gothic cathedral's architectural details.
With the painting Upper Deck (1929, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University Art Museums)—included in the exhibition and heralded by many as a masterpiece of American modernism—Sheeler began to enfold his photographic activity into the process of his painting. The full transition occurred during the 1930s, when Sheeler's photographic series became ever more personal, as he focused on the various aspects of Americana that interested him. Included in the exhibition are photographs of antique and Shaker furnishings in his own home, as well as the painting Americana (1931), depicting the same subject matter.
By the late 1930s, Sheeler had ceased to practice photography as an independent creative endeavor. Instead, it had become part of a systematic and increasingly complicated technique that conflated the processes of painting and photography, as in the series Power (1939), made on commission for Fortune magazine. Taken during his travels to such places as the Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley, these photographs—including the iconic Wheels—were made as studies for closely related paintings, which were then reproduced in the magazine.
Photographs in the exhibition are drawn from The Lane Collection. In the early 1950s, the late William H. Lane (1914–1995), owner of a small Massachusetts manufacturing plant, formed a noteworthy collection of American modernist painting, which included numerous works by Charles Sheeler, Arthur G. Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Hans Hofmann, and Franz Kline. During the 1960s, Lane and his wife Saundra turned to collecting photography, acquiring the entire photographic estate of their friend Charles Sheeler in 1965 in order to preserve treasures that few people at the time appreciated.