Commercial Photography: The River Rouge Factory, 1927
During the 1920s Sheeler found success and recognition as a commercial photographer. In 1927 he was hired by a prominent Philadelphia advertising firm, N. W. Ayer & Son, to shoot the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge auto plant located outside of Detroit as part of a promotional campaign for the new Model A. The immense facility covered eleven hundred acres and was heralded as the largest industrial complex in the world. Sheeler photographed the factory for about six weeks, from late October until the end of November; the result was a series of thirty-two prints. While the Rouge photographs were initially used to publicize the Ford Motor Company, they eventually came to serve as the basis for an assortment of experiments in various other media as well. Sheeler later recalled: "I was out there on a mission of photography....And when I got there, I took a chance on opening the other eye and so then I thought maybe some pictures could be pulled out."1
The view in American Landscape, 1930, of the Rouge's boat slip and the silos of the cement plant, was "pulled out" from the background of the gelatin silver print, Ford Plant, River Rouge, Canal with Salvage Ship, 1927, and its vertical format turned into a horizontal, panoramic view. In this and other paintings, Sheeler pictured the factory almost devoid of the tens of thousands of workers employed there. Described in general terms such as "American" and "classic" in their titles, the paintings are abstracted and distanced from the harsh, workaday realities of the factory in order to highlight the subject's aesthetic qualities. In the early 1930s Sheeler also produced a group of Conté crayon drawings based directly on his Rouge photographs, including Ballet Mechanique. Requiring as much time to complete as his paintings, these were created by Sheeler to "most closely approach photography" and "to see how much exactitude I could attain."2 Keeping the point of the crayon to "needle sharpness" and moving methodically from the top left to the bottom right of the sheet, Sheeler strove "to make my drawings as completely realized as paintings, in accounting for form, color and design."3
In the Rouge commission and the related works in various media, Sheeler successfully navigated the boundaries between applied, commercial, and fine art. For the rest of his career he continued to depict American industry, until his name became virtually synonymous with the subject and with the crisp, geometric style associated with it: precisionism. While many other artists associated with precisionism — such as Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Demuth, and Joseph Stella — explored industrial subjects, few could match the variety of approaches and techniques Sheeler brought to the task.
1. Interview by Bartlett Cowdrey, December 19, 1958, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
2. "Sheeler 1946," Art News 45 (March 1946): 30 – 31.
3. Charles Sheeler Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.