No Such Thing as a Precisionist Pussycat


Self portrait, Charles Sheeler, 1932

I didn’t discover Charles Sheeler until years after I began shooting architecture in earnest, began concentrating on the geometric beauty of the built environment. Began moving in closer and closer to concentrate on detail such as planes and edges, overlaps and shadows. Began cropping to the point of abstraction.

Only then, in John Szarkowski’s excellent book ‘Looking at Photographs’ did I stumble on a photograph by Sheeler. The image was ‘Cactus and Photographer’s Lamp’ and it wasn’t love at first sight. But something resonated, aided and abetted by Szarkowski’s observations. Something about the vertical edges and planes, the arrangment of objects and shadowplay. What was Sheeler up to?

Cactus and the Photographer’s Lamp, Charles Sheeler, 1931

I investigated further and was ultimately plunged into the fascinating world of a group who were called, variously, the ‘immaculates’, the ‘modern classcists’, the ‘cubo-realists’, the ‘sterilists’ and finally, a term attributed to both Sheeler and Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, the ‘Precisionists’.

Which stuck.

Here’s art historian and critic Robert Hughes in his book ‘American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America

The ungainly name of  ‘Precisionism’ was coined by the painter-photographer Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), mainly to denote what he himself did. It indicated both style and subject. In fact, the subject was the style; exact hard, flat, big, industrial, and full of exchanges with photography. Photography fed into painting and vice versa. No expressive strokes of paint. Anything live or organic, like trees or people, was kept out. There was no such thing as a Precisionist pussycat.’

Owing more than a just a passing nod toward European art movements such as Purism, Futurism, Cubism and perhaps just a soupçon of Dada, Precisionism embraced painting, printmaking and photography.

Pittsburgh, oil on canvas, Elsie Driggs, 1937

Its practicioners in painting included Charles Demuth, who was seminal in the birth of the movement, Elsie Driggs and Rawlston Crawford. Bridging painting and photography were Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler and Morton Schamberg. And its influence in photography touched among others Imogen Cunningham, Paul Outerbridge and Edward Weston.

But what of Precisionism’s precepts, objectives, intentions?

If today’s arts love the machine, technology and organization, if they aspire to precision and reject anything vague and dreamy, this implies an instinctive repudiation of Chaos and a longing to find the form appropriate to our times.
Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), German artist. His diary, April 1926.

Robert Hughes speaks of the ‘displacement of the Natural Sublime (celebrations of nature) by the Industrial Sublime (the industrial landscape)’. But then he throws a curve ball by saying that Sheeler’s real subject was ‘the Managerial Sublime (the promise of a wonderful future through modern machines and architecture)’ which Hughes describes as ‘a thoroughly American notion’.

The Managerial Sublime: what a curious canon for an art movement.

Nevertheless, a movement it became. Hughes again

… though Precisionism broadened into an American movement in the late twenties and early thirties, Sheeler’s work defined its essential scope and meaning.

Criss-crossed Conveyors, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Company, Charles Sheeler, 1927

And these were the movement’s primary constituents: a bias towards architectural and industrial subject matter, strict geometry, the absence of people and nature; the effects of flatness, depth and perspective.

Which, at first, all sounds like a recipe for stupendously dull art and, in particular, photography.

Far from it.

Check out Sheeler’s stark, intimate studies, both paintings and photographs, of his Doylestown, Pennsylvania home. Consider his strangely beautiful captures of smokestacks and funnels on board an ocean liner. Look at his commissioned work for Ford in 1927 at their monster automotive works at River Rouge. In all of these studies and more,  Sheeler looked for and found a compelling aesthetic in geometric juxtapositions.

Fellow Precisionist Paul Strand was also exploring the genre with both photographic studies of ‘modern’ machinery and cityscapes. In 1921 he also collaborated with Sheeler on a short documentary, Manhatta, which explored the relationship between photography and film.

And in which visual Precisionist precepts abound – despite the fact that there are, in some sequences, people! Crowds of them. Possibly even a pussycat.

Wall Street (still from film Manhatta), Paul Strand, 1921

In an interesting article in the New York Times in the mid-1990s by Roberta Smith, she suggests that

Precisionism may be most convincing in its photographs, not only by Sheeler and Strand but also by Imogen Cunningham, Ralph Steiner, Paul Outerbridge and Edward Weston, which are less clearly in Europe’s debt.

Nearly a century after its birth does Precisionism have anything more to say to us? Or was it just another art milestone to take its place in history?

Well, for me the built environment still offers boundless opportunity for exploring the aesthetics of geometric relationships, and the idea of these images standing for the ‘Industrial Sublime’ just about works.

The Saltine Box, Paul Outerbridge, 1922/23

And maybe deep in my (American) subconscious is the need to find order, to repudiate chaos. So, vis-a-vis photography, call me a Precisionist, but please, please never suggest that it has anything to do with the ‘Managerial Sublime’.

I think that might just drive me into therapy!

Fred Shively was born in the USA, but has lived and worked most of his life in Europe. His current base is Spain. His background of writing and creative direction in advertising and corporate communications exposed him to some of the world’s most talented photographers, designers, musicians and film-makers, all of whom influenced his work. Fred is now primarily involved in photography.