For Europeans, New York was the cradle of modernity, which in their eyes was characterized by the machine and by the skyscraper. Only in New York did such buildings exist and the 1927 German movie Metropolis was inspired by New York. As its maker, Fritz Lang said, “you know, Metropolis was born from my first sight of the New York skyscrapers in October 1924.” The real New York city lacked the elevated motorways and the buzzing airplanes of the German film, and indeed, American painters took a more pedestrian view of their home-grown icons of modernism. Georgia O’Keeffe, informed by “the men,” as she called the male artists, who circulated around her husband Alfred Stieglitz, that she as a woman was not qualified to paint such tall and grand objects, immediately embarked on a beautiful series of the towering structures seen outside of her home in the high-rise Shelton Hotel.
Although Charles Sheeler painted skyscrapers as well, her evocations are the more famous, perhaps because she imbued them with mystery and romance, and even a looming menace. Sheeler reduced his skyscrapers to formal shapes in a gridded composition, eliminating any excitement, making of these buildings something expected and ordinary. Although De Stijl is very seldom mentioned in relation to Charles Sheeler, his skyscraper paintings are evidently designed on a grid with the vertical lines of the buildings being supported by the horizontal rows of windows, reminiscent of the floating squares of Mondrian’s early paintings before he clamped down with the black grid. Like Mondrian who began with the complexities of Cubism and pared down essentials, Sheeler emphasized the necessary, which was as was evident in his paintings of complex buildings and as in his renditions of elaborate machines. The artist would use the camera as the basis for his paintings where he would remove some of the detailed clutter of the photograph and highlight other details and transfer the reduced version of the mechanical object to a precise hard edged painting.
When he was summoned to the Rouge River plant for an advertising campaign in 1927, Sheeler arrived with ideas of continuity of a historical process. This mindset is very different from that of Fritz Lang who saw New York as something entirely new, unprecedented, almost a lived experience of the future, one step away from science fiction. For Sheeler, the Plant and its numerous buildings was an example of the Industrial Sublime, an awe-inspiring experience of American ingenuity and dedication to purpose, subordinating humans to the might, power and promised of the many machines that would produce a Model A Ford. “Our factories,” he said, “are our substitute for religious expression.”
Carrying his equipment about the grounds of the Rouge River Plant, built by Ford Motor Company, Charles Sheeler approached his task of documenting the vast complex with evolution in mind. Truly, there was nothing like this vast industrial site in the world. In siting the plant in Dearborn on the Rouge River, Ford could take advantage of the open land and consolidate the materials used for manufacture with manufacturing processes themselves and the transporting of supplies into the site and the products—automobiles and their parts—out of the factories by water or by rail.
Designed by Albert Kahn in 1918 and completed in 1920, the plant poured our cars, like a pitcher emptied itself of milk. On a vast scale, the Rouge River complex was like that of a Medieval cathedral where builders, masons, sculptors, painters, stained glass designers, tapestry makers and so on were assembled in one place, dedicated to the glory of religion. The Rouge River plant was dedicated to the more mundane task of putting Americans behind the wheel of an affordable car, but it was one more step in a long process of industrialization that began more than a century ago. Today, the plant is a national park, visited by tourists. Manufacturing is now done in other nations and the supply chain is speared out—not along a river bank—but among many locations.
As he walked the manufacturing campus in 1927 during those six weeks, Sheeler could not have imagined that, unlike the cathedrals of Europe, this plant would not last even one hundred years. The N. W. Ayer advertising agency, Sheeler’s employer, wanted Sheeler to document the site, sometimes called more formally the River Rouge plant, in terms of “a creative interpretation of American industry.” What is more interesting about Sheeler’s interpretation is not what he included but what he excluded. Seventy-five thousand workers were present but none clutter the photographs or paintings by Sheeler; there were ninety miles of railroads, seen only in bits; ninety-three structures sprawl across the river bank but are seen only in pieces; thousands of automobiles rolled off the assembly lines a day but we never see a car.
The steel foundry was the largest in the world, a place of red fires and golden streams of molten ore, but Sheeler tamps down on the drama, turns his back on narrative, and even puts Ford under erasure. So where did Sheeler point his camera? What was his real subject? Recalling that this artist always sought the essential and the necessary, he appeared to have organized his images—and there are over one hundred of them—within a concept, that of technology and mechanization. Following the analytic approach of Atget, the artist worked in parts, that never add up the a materialistic whole but suggest a complete idea—the “Ford Plant” itself is but a trope for a world overtaken by machines.
In 1927 the photographer Charles Sheeler normalized and tamed the imposing Ford machines of the Rouge River plant through his composition and design which normalizes the experience of awe and might, bringing it under aesthetic control. The famous photograph of the criss-crossed conveyors has been compared to the flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral, and Vanity Fair magazine published the image in their February 1928 issue with a title, “By their Works Ye Shall Know Them,” alluding to the Biblical quotation: “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” In other words, regardless of the religious overtones, the magazine implied that nature had been supplanted by machine and religion by technology.
The fact that Sheeler was “reading in detail,” to quote Naomi Schor, worked against any attempt at the classical sweep of the sublime seen in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or James Turner. In the photographs of the industrial sublime, both God and nature were absent. Unable to control the Rouge River site, Sheeler worked in terms of indication. Each detail gestured towards something larger, something that Jacques Ellul called “technique” or more simply machine technology. Writing in 1954, after the atomic bombs had been dropped, the French historian insisted that technique or technology had a mind all its own, that it pursued its own ends, striving for a logical extension of its own unanticipated needs, based upon internal logical rationale invisible to humans.
If one compares the machine photographs of Albert Renger-Patzsch to the industrial photography of the pioneers of the genre, Margaret Bourke-White and Charles Sheeler, it becomes clear that Renger-Patzsch, who also used analytics, lacked the awe felt by the American photographers. The lack marks the difference in scale—in the 1920s German industry was still recovering while America was exploding with new structures never before experienced in such expanse and magnitude. For Bourke-White and Sheeler, detail was the retreat. Designing with the incidental, these photographers could resolve the intimations of helplessness before a runaway technological force bent on its own unforeseen ends. Details could counter the sheer proportions that dwarfed the people, who worked with the massive machines, and enabled Bourke-White to clamp down upon the contradiction between the fact that the technology and mechanization were the inventions of human creativity but dominate and dehumanize.
Compared to their European counterparts, Sheeler and Bourke-White romanticized and aestheticized their industrial vedutas or views, incorporating them into the genre of landscape painting and subordinating the machine to the romantic sublime, understandable territories from an earlier and more translatable century. The result, a new version of “beauty,” was all the more surprising, given that both Bourke-White and Sheeler photographed these sites, not for their own edification, but for patrons, those who built these industrial megaliths or those who supported industry as a source of wealth and power. But the details or facets, expertly photographed and constructed, beautifully framed and presented, served their purpose, becoming icons in themselves, signifiers of American might and American ingenuity and the rising power of the young country.
The romanticizing of the mechanical imperative, of technological determinism, by these photographers suggested that a traditional solution to a difficult artistic problem—how to capture vastness—was also a blindness in the face of such exciting progress, a blindness that could not foresee the future: how soon the sublime would become modern: a white-hot bomb would wipe a city off a map and a once booming factory would become a romantic ruin. In and of itself the Rouge River complex and its unseen products are less important than the telling details which are read as the products of human ingenuity which have become inhuman. Even today, the average viewer would have little idea of which building or which machine is being presented or what their functions might have been. Details such as purpose were apparently less important than presenting an impression of massive abstract structures, mysterious massive machines, a landscape dominated by soaring technology, all fragments that bespoke a larger message—mechanization, to quote Sigfried Giedion, has taken command.