Photomontage: New England Irrelevancies, 1946
During the course of two artist-in-residence programs in the 1940s — one at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1946 and the other at the Currier Gallery in Manchester, New Hampshire, in 1948 — Sheeler began depicting abandoned nineteenth-century textile mills in New England using photomontage. While Dada artists earlier in the century had developed photomontage as a variation of collage, pasting together actual photographs or photographic reproductions culled from the press, Sheeler created his montages in the darkroom by sandwiching two or three negatives in his enlarger. He then exposed the composite image and printed the results, for example Study for Improvisation on a Mill Town, 1948. Sheeler noted: "The idea is based on having realized that when we look at any object in nature there is the memory of the object we have previously seen that carrys [sic] over as overtones on the present. I combine the immediate image with things previously seen. The overtones may be related to the immediate or totally dissimilar."1
By the 1940s photomontage was a fairly common technique in both commercial and fine-art photography. What distinguished Sheeler's use of the medium was that he employed it not as an end in itself but as a basis for works in other media. While these again included oil paintings and Conté crayon drawings, Sheeler also experimented with new materials and methods, such as smaller works on glass and tempera studies.
The layering of various media that characterized Sheeler's earlier efforts culminated in the montage aesthetic found in his kaleidoscopic, carefully orchestrated series on the theme of the New England mill. In paintings such as New England Irrelevancies, which features an overlay of scenes from both the Andover and Manchester sites, Sheeler was able to merge abstract form and realistic detail in new, complex ways.
1. Charles Sheeler Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.