Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler Manhatta 1921

  • Not on view

In 1921, Sheeler and Strand collaborated to make Manhatta, considered to be the first American avant-garde film. Inspired by Walt Whitman's poem "Mannahatta," which is quoted in one of the intertitles, the film portrays life in New York City in sixty-five nonnarrative shots. The sequences display one epic day in Lower Manhattan, beginning with a ferry approaching the city in early morning and ending with a sunset view from a skyscraper. Shot from extreme camera angles, the film captures the dynamic qualities of the new metropolis.

Gallery label from The Shaping of New Visions: Photography, Film, Photobook, April 16, 2012–April 29, 2013.
Additional text

In 1920, photographer and painter Charles Sheeler asked photographer Paul Strand to collaborate on a filmed portrait of Manhattan. Both artists would come to be known, in part, for their documentation of urban and industrial America in work that emphasized the bold geometry of its buildings and cityscapes. The film they made, titled Manhatta after Walt Whitman’s poem, “Mannahatta,” which inspired it, echoes the form and spirit of the poet’s exalting verse. Structured more as a series of vignettes than as a linear narrative, it is cited as the first avant-garde film to have been made in America.

But for all its art, Manhatta is also documentary. It leads viewers through a day in the life of Manhattan, introduced by lines from one of Whitman’s many odes to his beloved home: “City of the world (for all races are here) / City of tall facades of marble and iron, / Proud and passionate city.” The film opens onto a view of New York Harbor, the camera moving slowly toward the shadowed mouth of the Staten Island Ferry terminal squat against a wall of buildings. It cuts to a shot of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge before returning again to the terminal, this time for a bird’s-eye-view of commuters massed on a docking ferry’s decks, then spilling forth into the city to begin their workday.

A silent-era film, Manhatta includes intertitles. But unlike other silent films, whose intertitles communicated plot explanations or dialogue, here they hold lines of Whitman’s verse. The poet’s lines relate to the scenes beside which they appear, but they are impressionistic, lilting, fragmentary, much like the film itself. Shots of bustling streets and sidewalks give way to thickets of raised and rising skyscrapers, a jigsaw puzzle of rooftops, steamships, trains, and other examples of human ingenuity—the mighty size of these industrial inventions dwarfing their inventors.

Manhatta ends at the close of the day. Sheeler and Strand turn the camera to the sky, lingering on the sunset over The City That Never Sleeps.

Producer
Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler
Object number
W1896
Department
Film

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