Charles Sheeler was drawn to the ordinary: a white-walled room, a spiral staircase, an urban roofscape. Using light and shadow as his palette, the 20th century photographer exposed the hidden beauty of these simple, utilitarian compositions.

"The [builders] weren't building a work of art," he once said. "If it's beautiful to some of us afterward, it's beautiful because it functioned."

"Side of White Barn, Bucks County, Pennsylvania," 1915, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

That celebration of the beauty in functionality is now on exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Charles Sheeler from Doylestown to Detroit highlights three of the photographer's most iconic series, which together stretch across time and the American industrial landscape.

Sheeler (1883-1965) built a career coaxing new worlds out of the ordinary ones he inhabited, becoming one of the founders of American modernism, which grappled with the new mechanized, commercialized, urbanized, and industrialized 20th century world.

"Manhatta — Ferry Docking," 1920, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

"Ford Plant — Criss-Crossed Conveyors," 1927, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Sheeler did not set out to be a photographer — indeed, as a young man he trained as a painter, traveling to Europe, where his art was influenced by the likes of Pablo Picasso. But upon his return to the United States, Sheeler's own Cubist-inspired paintings failed to sell.

"He took up photography as a 'day job,' simply a way to make a living," says museum curator Karen Haas. "What he didn't realize was just how the experience would change his artistic vision — almost overnight."

Sheeler found that the camera offered daring new ways of capturing and presenting the world — the three-dimensional could be flattened, what moved could be held still. Photography allowed Sheeler "to organize and transform space," Haas says.

"Manhatta — Through a Balustrade," 1920, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

"Buggy, Doylestown, Pennsylvania," 1917, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The first series on display at the MFA depicts quotidian views of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Sheeler rented a home for a few years starting in 1915.

The photographer grew up in Philadelphia, so the region's architecture would have been all too familiar. Yet far from feeling provincial, Sheeler's images of his Doylestown house and its rooms are stripped down to their essentials — angles, shadows, and light — becoming something entirely and surreally new.

"In a sense, he turned the white-washed interior and its staircase into a kind of cubist sculpture or puzzle," Haas says.

(Left) "Doylestown House — Stairs from Below," 1916-17, by Charles Sheeler, (right) "Doylestown House — Stairwell," 1916-17, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In 1920, Sheeler collaborated on a short, silent film with fellow modernist photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand in New York City. Manhatta featured the steep angles and industrial aesthetic that was quickly becoming Sheeler's hallmark. And the second series in the MFA exhibition takes stills from the film as well as standalone shots that Sheeler took of the city soon after.

"Sheeler's still photographs of New York skyscrapers are sharply angled downward, do away with the horizon line, and replicate the panning vision of the moving pictures," Haas explains.

While the Manhatta series is a rather drastic change of venue from rural Pennsylvania, Sheeler's emphasis on the camera's transformative properties remains the same.

"Manhatta — Rooftops," 1920, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

"New York, Buildings in Shadows and Smoke," 1920, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In the late 1920s, Sheeler was commissioned to photograph the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge plant, in Michigan, when the company's new Model A was introduced.

The resulting pictures, which comprise the exhibit's third series, capture the staggering function of the plant and its massive machinery. To this day, these portraits are considered some of the most iconic of the Machine Age.

"It's sometimes difficult for us to put ourselves back in time and remember what a celebratory moment this still was as far as American industry and the perceived promise of the future," Haas notes. "Images like these perfectly capture the optimism of the years leading up to the Great Depression."

A fitting coda, then, to a body of work that firmly planted Sheeler among the giants of American modernism photography. From the rural house to the big city to the industrial cathedrals of the day, Sheeler's subjects were simple only at first glance — they challenged the viewer to look beyond.

"Ford Plant — Ladle Hooks, Open Hearth Building," 1927, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

"Ford Plant — Stamping Press," 1927, by Charles Sheeler | (The Lane Collection, Image Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

**Charles Sheeler from Doylestown to Detroit is on view through Nov. 5, at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston**