Serial Portraits

In his unpublished autobiography, Sheeler noted that he began his work at Condé Nast at some point in 1925, when he “was unexpectedly launched into a phase of photography with which until then I was unfamiliar. It comprised portraiture and fashions for magazine publication.” The invitation to join the photography department at the publisher came from his friend Edward Steichen, who had been named head of the department in 1923. Whereas Steichen was apt to incorporate bravura flourishes in his photographs, Sheeler eschewed theatrical touches in favor of the cool, spare modernism that characterized his Doylestown House series and his photographs of sculpture.

Early in his tenure at Condé Nast, Sheeler made multiple portraits of two popular dancers of the era, the French former light-heavyweight boxing champion Georges Carpentier, and the petite Ziegfeld Follies and Scandals star Ann Pennington (nearby). These were arranged into full-page tableaux with idiomatic captions (some of which are insensitive by today’s standards) about the dance moves they demonstrated. As arranged here—in an order that roughly corresponds to the steps of the Charleston—the published photographs and outtakes from the Carpentier sitting have a filmic and serial quality that references his earlier work on the film Manhatta. In both composition and approach, they also recall Sheeler’s photographs of African sculpture, such as African Musical Instrument (nearby), which similarly employed multiple light sources to create dramatic shadows that dance along the wall in abstract, rhythmic patterns. The Carpentier series is an impressive essay in high-contrast lighting, sharp-focus photography, and modern set design.

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