Art

Photography review

Small but choice: Stieglitz and Sheeler shows at the MFA

Alfred Stieglitz’s “The Steerage”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Alfred Stieglitz’s “The Steerage”

“Alfred Stieglitz and Modern America” and “Charles Sheeler From Doylestown to Detroit” are small shows at the Museum of Fine Arts, with 36 and 39 works, respectively.

Small does not mean inconsiderable. No museum show this year may well have a higher ratio of quality to quantity. To take the two most obvious examples, Stieglitz’s “The Steerage” and Sheeler’s “Criss-Crossed Conveyors, Ford Plant” are more than just masterpieces (not that there’s ever anything “just” about a masterpiece). They’re defining works of photography as a medium.

Stieglitz (1864-1946) also happens to be a defining figure of the medium. Practitioner, publisher, polemicist, editor, and gallery owner: No one did as much to advance the cause of photography as a fine art. He both changed the medium and changed along with it.

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The earliest photograph here, “The Terminal (New York),” is from 1893. It’s as beautiful an image as exists, with its variety of textures, interplay of angle and curve, marriage of the lyrical (the steam rising from the horses’ flanks) and prosaic (the slush beneath their hooves). The photograph epitomizes both Pictorialism, with its aim to elevate photography through aping the appearance of painting and etching, and looks ahead to classic 20th-century photography, with its stunning specificity and forthright contemporaneity.

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That photographic future is very much evident in the latest image in the show, “From the Shelton, Looking West,” from the mid-’30s, with its view of the midtown Manhattan skyline. The RCA Building is a beacon of the now, as modern as America could get at that time and that place.

The MFA has a special relationship with Stieglitz’s work. In 1927, the museum accepted a gift of 27 prints from him. This was the first time a notable body of images from one photographer entered the permanent holding of a leading US museum. Twenty years later, his widow donated another 42 Stieglitz photographs.

His widow was Georgia O’Keeffe. The more than 300 photographs he took of her are the greatest extended love letter in American art — and, like any great love letter, they convey an incalculable range of emotions. Ten are on display: O’Keeffe’s face, her hands, her torso, even with a saw in her hand (helping to prune a tree).

Anne Havinga curated the Stieglitz, Karen Haas the Sheeler. The exhibitions run through Nov. 5.

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Sheeler (1883-1965) isn’t the only painter/photographer. Others include Ben Shahn, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close. But Sheeler’s career likely had the best balance between the two and the most fruitful mutual influence.

As with Stieglitz, the MFA has a special relationship with Sheeler. Sheeler’s photographic estate, comprising more than 2,500 items, is part of the Lane Collection, a promised gift to the museum.

Charles Sheeler’s “Criss-Crossed Conveyors”
The Lane Collection/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Charles Sheeler’s “Criss-Crossed Conveyors”

The single most famous item is “Criss-Crossed Conveyors.” Sheeler took it at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant (that’s the “Detroit” part of the show’s title). There are another 10 photographs here from that epic survey of the Industrial Sublime. Sheeler took about 40 in all. Ninety years later, the excitement Sheeler felt in the presence of these magnificent structures — monuments to utility, geometry, force — remains palpable.

So much of the visual power of these images has to do with how full they are — with smokestacks and gantries and crankshafts and turbines yet how absolutely orderly all the machinery is in arrangement. That orderliness connects them to the photographs Sheeler took a decade earlier of the 18th-century farmhouse he rented in Doylestown, Pa. You have to look for the orderliness in the River Rouge photographs. Conversely, everything in the farmhouse is so spare, the sense of order is as evident as the pickets in a fence.

It’s one thing to find order in a factory or farmhouse. What about a city? Sheeler did that, too, or as much as anyone could with a metropolis as chaotic as New York. In 1920, he and Paul Strand collaborated on a short film, “Manhatta.” The title bows to Walt Whitman, lines of whose poetry appear as intertitles. The version shown in the exhibition has been very impressively restored. The film is much more about celebration than arrangement. It’s in the 15 accompanying photographs that urban orderliness emerges. Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan, ” written five years later, declares that “The great big city’s a wondrous toy/Just made for a girl and boy.” In these photographs, the toy is a puzzle — and Sheeler’s solved it.

A photo of Georgia O'Keeffe helping prune a tree by Alfred Stieglitz
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
A photo of Georgia O'Keeffe helping prune a tree by Alfred Stieglitz

ALFRED STIEGLITZ AND MODERN AMERICA

CHARLES SHEELER FROM DOYLESTOWN TO DETROIT

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At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Nov. 5. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.