Related themes

Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.

Rise of the Modern City

Discover the ways in which artists and architects engaged with the landscape of modern cities.


Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler
(American, 1890–1976), (American, 1883–1965)

1921. 35mm film (black and white, silent), 9 min.

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.

Dialogue or narration conveyed in text that is shown between scenes of a silent film.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

The science, art, or profession of designing and constructing buildings, bridges, and other large structures.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

Having the character of an icon, i.e., an important and enduring symbol, an object of great attention and devotion.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A brief, evocative description, account, or scene.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

The method by which information is included or excluded from a photograph, film, or video. A photographer or filmmaker frames an image when he or she points a camera at a subject.

The shape or structure of an object.

Any public-facing side of a building, often featuring decorative finishes.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

What’s In A Name? From Manahatta to Manhattan
Before the Dutch staked their claim to the verdant island off the northeast coast of what became the United States, the Lenape Indians were living on its southern half. They called their home Manahatta, meaning “hilly island.” In 1624, aided by the Lenape, the Dutch established a nascent settlement at the southern tip of Manahatta and called it New Amsterdam. Not long after, in 1664, the English took over from the Dutch and renamed the settlement New York. But even as the colonists named, renamed, and ultimately expanded their settlement into a world metropolis—razing hills and pushing out the Lenape in the process—the island’s original name stuck, albeit in the slightly modified form of Manhattan.

From Still to Moving Image
Strand and Sheeler shot much of Manhatta at the site of the city’s first settlement: Manhattan’s southern tip. For Strand this was familiar territory, where he took many of the photographs that would distinguish him as a keen observer of modern architecture and form. In fact, at least one of his still photographs—Wall Street, New York (1915)—comes to life in Manhatta. Toward the beginning of the film, we see people walking past a massive wall punctured by rectangular windows. Strand and Sheeler framed this scene for their film exactly as Strand did for his photograph. The wall in question belonged to the recently completed headquarters of J.P. Morgan and Company, located on Wall Street, node of financial power.