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  Charles Sheeler, Photographer

Charles Rettrew Sheeler Jr was born to middle-class parents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on July 16, 1883. From his father, he received his lifelong love of art. After graduating from high school, Mr. Sheeler first studied industrial drawing and applied arts at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial art, and then studied drawing and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he graduated in 1906. His Academy mentor was Impressionist portrait and landscape painter William Merritt Chase. Mr. Sheeler's knowledge of and appreciation for art deepened during visits to Europe, first in 1904 and then later from 1908 to 1909, when he traveled throughout Italy and France, where he became acquainted with Modernism. While in Paris, Mr. Sheeler began experimenting with Cubist painting, which he later credited with liberating him from the rigid conventions of his classroom instruction.

Shortly after returning to the United States, Mr. Sheeler concluded he was unable to support himself solely as a painter, and with a $5 Eastman-Kodak 'Brownie' camera and a wealth of initiative, he taught himself commercial photography. In 1910, he and artist friend Morton Schamberg rented a farmhouse in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and transformed it into a gallery that specialized in construction photography. They further supplemented their income by photographing the painting and sculpture collections of neighboring museums, and documenting private collections, most notably John Quinn's African sculpture collection (1916-1918), and Walter Arenberg's New York City apartment (1918), which contained more than 70 avant-garde artworks. Forever the art student, Mr. Sheeler studied the vast urban landscape and architecture surrounding him, and experimented with various types of color, lighting, and space to further accentuate their inherent aesthetic characteristics. He discovered that the beauty of a building involved more than physical attractiveness; it emanated from its functionality.

By 1920, Mr. Sheeler discovered that architectural photography was is true calling, and began a documentary series entitled, "New York, Park Row Building," which were seven photographs from the mammoth 41-story Equitable Building at 120 Broadway. He emphasized the building forms and established a depth of field with the window patterns, with cropping collapsing space within each frame. Impressed with what he saw, Edward Steichen, chief photographer of the Conde Nast publication, offered him a staff photographer position in 1926. That same year, following his critically received River Rouge Commission photographic series, he was offered a staff photographer position at Ford Motor Company, where he remained until 1929. That was also the year Mr. Sheeler made his final pilgrimage to Europe, where he photographed Chartres Cathedral (a series entitled "Flying Buttresses at the Crossing"), employing the same techniques that succeeded in the River Rouge series – emphasizing lines, shape, and the massive pier that centers all of seemingly chaotic structural buttresses. One photographic historian observed that the photographs "encapsulate and immortalize the awesome world swirling around them."

Mr. Sheeler remained busy well into the 1950s. He became a favorite among the group of writers known as the 'Beat Generation,' who adopted the urban landscape as a metaphor for their art and social commentary. A 1959 stroke forced the photographer into retirement until his death in Dobbs Ferry, New York, on May 7, 1965 at the age of 81. Though his name may not be recognizable today, Charles Sheeler exerted a vast influence upon legendary American photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and his artistic renderings of technology and machinery and their cultural impact remain the advertising cornerstone of the U.S. automobile industry.

2017 Charles Sheeler Across Media (URL:

2017 Charles Sheeler: American Painter and Photographer (URL:

1938 Charles Sheeler, Artist in the American Tradition by Constance Rourke (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.), p. 119.

2017 Charles Sheeler: Chartres Cathedral (URL:

2008 Charles Sheeler: Modernism, Precisionism and the Borders of Abstraction by Mark Rawlinson (London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.), pp. 2, 46.

2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 786, 1416-1418.

1993 Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America by Terry Smith (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), pp. 117-118.

2004 Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media by Mitchell Scwharzer (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), p. 194.

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2019-01-05 22:08:09

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