#234) Manhatta (1921)


#234) Manhatta (1921)

OR “Pre-Empire State of Mind”

Directed by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler

Text adapted from the poem “Mannahatta” by Walt Whitman

Class of 1995

The Plot: Photographers Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler use their artistic viewpoints to highlight the sights of 1921 Manhattan. Using 65 camera set-ups and the words of Walt Whitman, the two filmmakers showcase the many facets of this “proud and passionate city” in this unique short.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s cinematography and states that the film’s artistry “helped to bring it to a broader audience than most avant-garde productions of the time.”

But Does It Really?: Sure, I’ll give it a pass. As longtime readers know, I will support any film that either a) encapsulates a specific time in American history, b) highlights artists not primarily known for filmmaking or c) is short. “Manhatta” is all of the above, and worth at least one viewing.

Everybody Gets One: Paul Strand was a photographer/activist who used his art to bring awareness to social issues. Among those influenced by Strand’s early work was Edward Hopper, so he’s got that going for him. Charles Sheeler was a fellow New York photographer whose work focused on buildings and machinery rather than nature and people (not unlike this film). His later career as a painter also followed this aesthetic with precisionism, an art movement known for its linear and structured format. And there’s no way I can cover all of Walt Whitman’s accomplishments in this post, so I’m just gonna leave you this link to a more thorough overview from the Library of Congress, as well as this photo. Look at that Rip Van Winkle with the come-hither stare.


Wow, That’s Dated: Practically everything, from horse-drawn carriages to straw boaters as formal wear. It’s also a treat to see the Manhattan skyline before any of the buildings I associate with their skyline were constructed.

Other notes

  • The name “Manhatta” is derived from the Whitman poem “Mannahatta”, which is a Lenape word meaning “land of many hills”. Is Manhattan known for its hills?
  • Apparently only one 35mm print of this film survives. All restored versions are derived from this print. Nice save, Library of Congress!
  • Strand & Sheeler, the team so nice they’re credited twice!
  • Be on the lookout for a shot that closely resembles Paul Strand’s 1915 photograph “Wall Street”.
  • You can’t see a ‘20s construction site and not think of “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” (even though that photo wasn’t taken until 1932).
  • Anyone know what that Aztec looking building is?
  • There are some liberties taken with the original poem “Mannahatta” within the intertitles. Good thing that poem isn’t copyrighted or these two would be in a heap of trouble.
  • I’m pretty sure I can see Fannie Brice on the front of one of those tugboats.
  • Speaking of, ocean liners still need tugboats to get them out of dock? Surely that technology has advanced in the last 97 years.
  • In true Sheeler fashion, the only shots of people are crowd shots from overhead. No emphasis on specific people, just large masses.
  • Yeah, sunsets are not that impressive when it’s in black and white.


  • Charles Sheeler pivoted more towards painting after “Manhatta”, but he kept at it for the next 40 years, with most of his work still being displayed in art museums around the world.
  • We’ll see more of Paul Strand’s cinematography in another NFR entry: 1936’s “The Plow That Broke the Plains”.
  • As for Walt Whitman, well…he had already been dead for 29 years when this came out, so not much changed for him.

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