The nine-minute documentary film Manhatta was a collaboration between Charles Sheeler and fellow photographer and Stieglitz Circle member Paul Strand (1890–1976). It consists of 65 shots assembled to suggest the city through the course of a day. A groundbreaking work in experimental cinema, Manhatta was the progenitor of filmic elegies to the modern city such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) as well as motion-picture films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which were more ambivalent in their view of the modern city. Sheeler and Strand made the film in the spring and summer of 1920, “restricting themselves definitely to the powering geometry of lower Manhattan, and its environs.” They shot the city from above, looking down—offering a viewpoint that tourists and most of the city’s citizens would not ordinarily encounter. The abstract presentation of the city, its soaring skyscrapers and the canyons between them, is as precise and detached as that in Sheeler’s other body of work from this period, and the film’s focus on the play of light and shadow, architectural form, and framing devices was certainly influential as he developed and refined his photographic technique during the 1920s.
When Manhatta made its commercial debut at the Rialto Theatre in New York on July 24, 1921, it was titled New York the Magnificent, which certainly encapsulates the artists’ aim to highlight elements in the city that were “expressive of the spirit of New York, of its power and beauty and movement.” The intertitles, from verses by Walt Whitman, were imposed by the Rialto. With the help of Marcel Duchamp, the film was screened in Paris in 1923 as Fumée de New York (Smoke of New York); it was not until it was screened in London in 1927 that it received the title Manhatta. After that screening, it was forgotten until the last surviving print was discovered in 1950 at the National Film Archives of Great Britain.