What’s this photo?
It symbolizes what many people thought was the future of manufacturing, 84 years ago. As Changing Gears looks at where manufacturing is headed, this iconic picture reminds us of the importance of industry to our region.
This is one of a series of photographs by Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), an artist and photographer who was fascinated by modern America.
His work was called “precisionism” — hard, flat, colorless, linear — and it fit the 1920s, when Sheeler photographed Henry Ford’s vast Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich.
The first time I saw Sheeler’s photos, I was thunderstruck. His work represented everything that Detroit symbolizes to me — majestic, powerful, daunting, where the individual is overshadowed by the institution. I’ve always been surprised that Sheeler’s work is not better known, given the impact that industry has on America’s image of itself.
“It is difficult, today, to imagine the enthusiasm with which Americans (and especially American managers) in the 1920s embraced the idea of the machine as a model and regulator of working life,” Robert Hughes wrote in American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.
Sheeler, a native of Philadelphia, was already well known in the art world when the advertising agency N.W. Ayer hired him on Ford Motor Company’s behalf for a campaign meant to celebration the completion of the Rouge.
It was the culmination of Henry Ford’s vision of building every aspect of a car from scratch, starting with raw materials such as iron ore and ending with the new Model A driving off the assembly line. To Ford, the Rouge represented the future of manufacturing.
“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do,” Ford was known to have said.
Sheeler spent six weeks inside the Rouge complex, which was home to 75,000 workers, 93 separate structures, rail lines and docks on 2,000 acres along the border between Detroit and Dearborn. From 1927 to 1942, when production ceased for World War II, the complex produced 15 million vehicles, even accounting for the slowdown caused by the Great Depression.
The photographer was given complete freedom to roam the complex. The Rouge series included 32 photographs, some of which were published in Vanity Fair magazine.The photos emphasize the vastness of the buildings and machinery, which dwarf the few people that Sheeler depicted in the images. Sheeler followed his Rouge photographs with paintings of the complex.
The photos are occasionally on view in the nation’s art museums, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which has many of Sheeler’s other works.
You can still see many of the buildings and vistas that Sheeler captured in his photographs, especially the giant smoke stacks that still dominate the Dearborn landscape. And, The Henry Ford in Dearborn offers a tour `that gives visitors a sample of what the assembly plant is like.