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Charles Sheeler's Still Life: Paintings from Photos

Charles 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 of Art in Washington, D.C., in an exhibit called Across Media.

In 1917, Sheeler made a series of black-and-white photos of a simple Quaker house in Doylestown, Pa. 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 something in the emptiness.

"You can't help but notice the absence, and that makes you in some ways inhabit the picture," he says.

In 1927, the Ford Motor Co. hired Charles Sheeler to take pictures of its newly completed, massive River Rouge plant near Dearborn, Mich. There were smokestacks, machine tools, conveyor belts, and the blast furnace. Thousands of people worked inside the plant. Almost none appear in Sheeler's pictures.

Photo historian Francine Trachtenberg. says Sheeler was making art for art's sake. He saw first with his eye, not his heart, she says.

Sheeler's 1923 photo-like crayon drawing of a telephone shows an elegant machine "with circles and columns and cylindrical forms," she says. "But we don't have what we do with it. We don't have that interaction with it. We're observing it.

"We are looking, 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 mouths."

The exhibit is at the National Gallery through Aug. 27. Then it travels to Chicago and San Francisco.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.