Images of industrial power and of the sublime beauty of modern machinery, Sheeler’s photographs of the River Rouge have been interpreted a number of ways by a wide variety of scholars, but they are rarely seen in relationship to his work for Vogue and Vanity Fair. Sheeler likened his assignment for Ford to making “portraits” of machinery, and the spare, architectural approach he used in photographing the plant’s blast furnaces and exterior structures (see Criss-Crossed Conveyers at Ford Rouge Plant and Blast Furnace at Ford Rouge Plant nearby), were simultaneously influenced by his work for magazines and influential upon his final years at the firm. A comparison of Criss-Crossed Conveyors to photographs made a few months before he traveled to Detroit, such as Esteban Cortez and his Partner Peggy (nearby), reveal the significant impact his magazine work had on his aesthetic vision and technical approach. Conversely, images of Madame Lassen and Peggy Fish demonstrate the influence of his Ford assignments on his approach to photographing a human subject.
Perhaps the most profound influence of Sheeler’s magazine work can be seen in his later photographs of sculptural objects, particularly those made during a two-year fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exquisite tonal modeling of contours and volumes in these prints—far more advanced than his earlier sculptural photography—is revelatory of the lasting significance of Sheeler’s Condé Nast period. Even as he returned to earlier subjects, such as Bucks County barns and grain silos, the influence of his portrait photography is evident in his volumetric approach to planar design.
Sheeler’s fashion photographs may not have conveyed high-wattage glamour like Edward Steichen’s, or been as experimental as Cecil Beaton’s, but he was the first to treat his subjects as though they were works of art, positioned, as one scholar noted, “between the documentary and the aesthetic, between absolute objectivity and legibility of layout.”