Charles Sheeler (American, 1883–1965)
Gelatin silver print
Image: 25.3 x 20.2 cm (9 15/16 x 7 15/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Anonymous Gift and The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005 (2005.100.155)
After the initial success of his photographs in the art world, Charles Sheeler for a time exhibited them with his paintings, indicating his belief that his work in each medium shared the same status. In 1923, in a review of an exhibition of Stieglitz's photographs, he criticized his former mentor's use of platinum paper. The article caused a rift between the two men, following which Sheeler's photographic work became more visible in commercial than in art circles. His most important commercial commission was for the Ford Motor Company in 1927; at the River Rouge plant, he produced images that focused on industry as the most significant expression of the modern age.
Sometime during the following year, Sheeler was presumably commissioned to photograph the S.S. Majestic, though the exact details of the commission remain unclear. Three of the photographs have survived, yet none seems to have been published. Like the River Rouge photographs, the image seen here celebrates the machine—in this case, an ocean liner, referred to as "a machine for living" by the French architect Le Corbusier in his book Toward a New Architecture (1923). Sheeler did not display his subject in its entirety; rather, he focused on the ship's motors, ventilator stacks, and exhaust fans—symbols of its mechanical power. In general, he sought to reveal the underlying abstract structure, even in pictures realistically conceived; and indeed, this image is at once abstract and highly realistic. The vantage point accentuates the geometry and repetition of the forms, reducing this floating wonder to a few crisply lit, carefully composed, precisely observed details. A year later, Sheeler would use the photograph as the basis for a painting of the same name.