Sheeler -- Ford, River Rouge Plant, 1927
In 1927, Sheeler was commissioned by N.W. Ayer & Son to photograph the Ford Motor Company's new River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan (Lucic 89-90). "The world's largest foundry at the time Sheeler took the photograph" (Lucic 92). While Henry Ford had no interest in art, he did see machinery as the New Messiah (Lucic 80) and Sheeler's photographs of the plant do seem to have a gothic cathedral quality to them. Richard Guy Wilson referred to them as "preternaturally clear images" (Wilson 218). A s with all of Sheeler's photographs, the focal point of the painting actually off of the page. This reinforces the point that it's not what Sheeler is showing that is important, but it's rather what he's implying that is.
Miles Orvell, in his book After the Machine, notes that Sheeler's body of work for Ayers and Ford lacked any view of the assembly line and "nearly the complete absence of the worker from the scene of production" (17). He goes on to say that "Where human beings do appear they seem dwarfed by the giant machinery, purely ancillary to the kettles, furnaces, ladles, and dynamos they serve" (18). What Sheeler does show are scenes of mechanized production--i.e., raw materials being transported and shape d throughout the factory system with minimal assistance from human workers.
Orvell goes on to argue that Sheeler "creates for us an experience of the technological sublime, the awesome power of the machine when viewed as a creative force, so overpowering as to be slightly terrifying" (18). However, I argue that Sheeler's photogr aphs of River Rouge are neither beautiful nor sublime. Sheeler's photography is best described as what Uvedale Price called in 1794, picturesque. Price stated that "where an object, or a set of objects, is without smoothness or grandeur, but from its in tricacy, its sudden and irregular deviations, its variety of forms, tints, and lights and shadows, is interesting to a cultivated eye, it is simply picturesque..." (Ashfield 275). Marx, despite being a champion of the technological sublime as it relates to the pastoral, shows accord when he states "By superimposing order, peace, and harmony upon our modern chaos, Sheeler represents the anomalous blend of illusion and reality in the American consciousness" (Marx 355-356). Clearly, "order, peace, and harm ony" are not words used to typically describe the sublime or the beautiful, rather they are more appropriate to the Price's definition of the picturesque.
Leo Marx, in his book The Machine in the Garden , refers to one of Sheeler's paintings and notes its photographic quality and says that "Sheeler has eliminated all evidence of the frenzied movement and clamor we associate with the industrial scene. The s ilence is awesome."
Sheeler sees the sublime and the beautiful through a picturesque lens. In fact, it's far away from representing the "technological sublime" that Leo Marx discusses in The Machine in the Garden. (Marx 195). "The entire relation between man and nature is being transformed...It is the new mechanized landscape itself which may be expected to induce this state of mind." (195)