Sculptural Photography & Still Life

Whether through photographic or painted means, Sheeler distilled reality to its most basic elements, reducing natural forms to the borderline of abstraction, retaining only the elements he believed to be indispensable. This approach was equally suited to rendering objects with fewer rectilinear boundaries, such elements in a still life, sculpture, and later, people. In the late teens, Sheeler began photographing private art collections and also made images of art objects—predominantly sculpture—for leading New York galleries such as Marius de Zayas’ Modern Gallery and Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291. Whereas the Doylestown House photographs were experiments in abstraction and planarity, the sculptural photographs are primarily concerned with contours and volumes. Sheeler situates his subjects against tight rectilinear backgrounds, and employs strong light sources to create areas of shadow that enhance the exploration of the object’s form, effectively “sculpting” it from the picture plane.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Gaston Lachaise’s Egyptian Head, 1922. Sheeler collotype published n A.E. Gallatin, Gaston Lachaise (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. 1924).

Sheeler also painted a number of still lifes during this time. In these works, the organic forms are treated much the same as the inanimate subjects of his sculptural photography, with graceful contours and sculptural volumes placed within a geometric matrix. Around 1925, Sheeler wrote a short essay on still life painting that articulated his approach to the subject, one that would ground his work across media during this period: He noted that “intense and selective realism” causes “our eyes in conjunction with our minds, to convert the realistic presentation into a design of various contrast of visual qualities based upon a geometric structure.” Together, the sculptural photographs and the still lifes provided a medium for Sheeler to explore form and structure, examining a single object from a variety of angles. This experimentation resulted in a blending of planes and volumes that would inform the distinct camera vision seen in his Condé Nast photographs.

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