Film: Manhatta and the Cityscape, 1920
In late 1919 or early 1920, shortly after buying an expensive 35mm movie camera, Sheeler approached the photographer Paul Strand about developing a project together. From early 1920 into the fall of that year, they made a short film depicting a day in the life of New York City. Consisting of approximately sixty-five shots sequenced in a loose, narrative format, it begins with the Staten Island ferry approaching lower Manhattan to release hordes of morning commuters, and it ends with a sunset view taken from a downtown skyscraper. Shown in London in 1927 under the title Manhatta, the movie was lost for nearly a quarter century. It is now widely acknowledged as a landmark in the history of avant-garde cinema.
In Manhatta Sheeler and Strand sought specifically to apply, as Strand wrote, "their special knowledge gained from experiments in still photography, to the motion picture."1 Various scenes pay homage to the cityscape photography of their contemporaries, including Stieglitz. Camera movement is kept to a minimum and incidental motion is isolated within carefully arranged abstract compositions.
Although Sheeler soon abandoned filmmaking, Manhatta had a lasting impact on his work in other media. When he filmed a section of the city around the Park Row Building in lower Manhattan, he also made a series of still photographs, surveying the same area in ways that mimicked the panning motion of his movie camera. He then used one of the photographs in the series, New York, Park Row Building, 1920, as the basis for a pencil drawing, New York, 1920. The drawing is in turn closely related to Skyscrapers, the painting of almost identical size that followed in 1922. Stills from the film also inspired other paintings and drawings. As a sequence of images viewed over time, film provided Sheeler with a flexible conceptual framework that he extended into other media; what begins as a movie becomes a photograph and ends as a drawing or painting. Revisiting favorite subjects over the course of his career, his series often span decades, with many years routinely separating works in one medium from those in another.
1. Press release, Museum of Modern Art, film department archives.