RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The American artist Charles Sheeler took as his subject skyscrapers, machinery and a simple Quaker house. In the 1920's and 30's, he first photographed, then painted them.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg paid a visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington where some of 50 of the artist's works are now being shown.
SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:
Charles Sheeler got sick and tired of people asking him whether photography could ever be called art.
Unidentified Man: He says if you put all the discussions about - is photography art? - end-to-end they would exactly from here to nowhere.
STAMBERG: Sheeler tried to explore the path between photos and paintings. Much admired for his meticulous, carefully composed photography, he put down his camera and picked up paintbrushes instead. The results are on the walls of the National Gallery.
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Visitors bring a life to the show that is notably absent from the works themselves. In 1917, Sheeler made a series of black and white photos of a simple Quaker house in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. A wooden door opens onto a flight of stairs; a door opens toward a small wall mirror; a wood-burning stove throws light onto a whitewashed wall, but no person is there. Curator Charles Brock sees some thing in the emptiness.
Mr. CHARLES BROCK (Assistant Curator, National Gallery of Art): They're kind of haunted by the presence of who was there, and you can't help but notice the absence. And that makes you, in some ways, inhabit the picture.
STAMBERG: In 1927, the Ford Motor Company hired Charles Sheeler to take pictures of their newly completed massive River Rogue Plant near Dearborn, Michigan: smokestacks, machine tools, conveyor belts, the blast furnace. Thousands of people worked inside the Rouge. Almost none appear in Sheeler's pictures.
STAMBERG: Would you say he was in love with industry? I mean, was that a driving force for him in these photographs, or was it about something else?
Mr. BROCK: He greatly admired industrial designers, no doubt about it. But that's not necessarily loving industry. What he sees in them is the fact that they create beautiful timeless form.
Ms. FRANCINE TRACHTENBERG (Photo Historian): Love is the passion that is not exhibited in these works.
STAMBERG: Photo historian Francine Trachtenberg. She says lots of elements are absent in Sheeler's photos and the meticulous paintings he based on them.
Ms. TRACHTENBERG: There is no air; there's no time; there are no brush strokes; there's no fingerprints on the industrial pieces; there's no waste; there's no passion.
STAMBERG: Charles Sheeler was making art for art's sake. He saw first with his eye not his heart, Trachtenberg says. Sheeler's 1923 photo-like crayon drawing of a telephone, an early table model, the mouthpiece fixed at the top of the stick, the earpiece hanging from a hook; that phone gleams with the efficiencies of the day.
Ms. TRACHTENBERG: The machine is elegant, with circles and columns and cylindrical forms, but we don't have what you do with it. We don't have that interaction with it: We're observing it.
STAMBERG: And to think that to me is that telephone was always about communication, but there's nothing about communication in this picture except, look at this; and that was his message.
Ms. TRACHTENBERG: We are looking. We're not talking. We're not even listening. We're only looking. And that's not bad, because few of us take the time to use our eyes as carefully as we use our mouth.
STAMBERG: Works by Charles Sheeler are at the National Gallery through August 27, then it travels to Chicago and San Francisco.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: To see the telephone in crayon and other works by Charles Sheeler, go to npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.