by Gerald Boerner
“The smallest modification of tonality affects structure.”
— Frederick Sommer
“Seeing Sommer’s artwork first hand is an experience that cannot be replicated on a screen…”
— Frederick Sommer’s Web Site
“Enthusiasm is the duty of understanding before the night fatal to remembrance.”
— Frederick Sommer
“Art is not arbitrary. A fine painting is not there by accident; it is not arrived at by chance. We are sensitive to tonalities.”
— Frederick Sommer
“Climatic conditions in the West give things time to decay and come apart slowly. They beautifully exchange characteristics from one to another”
— Frederick Sommer
Sommer wanted to show connections between the ever-changing forms of the universe and to “teach people that imagination is the finest order.”
— Getty Exhibition
“With Sommer we enter the world of the incredible and somebody locks the Doors of Perception behind us …. This is simply what happens when the eye is free to see.”
— Jonathan Williams
“…art is images you carry. You cannot carry nature with you, but you carry images of nature. When you go out to make a picture you find you are moved by something which is in agreement with an image you already held within yourself.”
— Frederick Sommer
Frederick Sommer (1905 – 1999)
Frederick Sommer was an artist born in Angri, Italy and raised in Brazil. He earned a M.A. degree in Landscape Architecture (1927) from Cornell University where he met Frances Elisabeth Watson (September 20, 1904 – April 10, 1999) whom he married in 1928; they had no children. The Sommers moved to Tucson, Arizona in 1931 and then Prescott, Arizona in 1935. Sommer became a naturalized citizen of the United States on November 18, 1939.
Considered a master photographer, Sommer first experimented with photography in 1931 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis the year prior. Early works on paper (starting in 1931) include watercolors, and evolve to pen-and-ink or brush plus drawings of visually composed musical score. Concurrent to the works on paper, Sommer started to seriously explore the artistic possibilities of photography in 1938 when he acquired an 8×10 Century Universal Camera, eventually encompassing the genres of still life (chicken parts and assemblage), horizonless landscapes, jarred subjects, cut-paper, cliché-verre negatives and nudes. The last artistic body of work Sommer produced (1989–1999) was collage based largely on anatomical illustrations.
“Sommer makes no concessions to the casual observer … a superficial glance at his pictures reveals about as much as a locked trunk of its contents …. He contemplates his fragments until they are the intimates of his living mind … Frederick Sommer of Arizona is the rare one who takes time to work in the sun and in the dark, in the desert and in the camera.”
— Minor White
In 1935 on a trip to New York he met Alfred Stieglitz at his An American Place gallery. He later met Paul Strand and Edward Weston. They all encouraged his work, but the results could not have been more different from their own vision. Many of his photographs are carefully constructed creations, painstakingly arranged for his camera, surrealistic compositions of found, discarded objects, from dead animals to bits of torn paper and broken toys.
Frederick Sommer had significant artistic relationships with Edward Weston, Max Ernst, Aaron Siskind, Richard Nickel and others. His archive (of negatives and correspondence) was part of founding the Center for Creative Photography in 1975 along with Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Wynn Bullock, and Aaron Siskind. He taught briefly at Prescott College during the late 60s and substituted for Harry Callahan at IIT Institute of Design in 1957–1958 and later at the Rhode Island School of Design.
"In a world of disturbing images, the general body of photography is bland, dealing complacently with nature and treating our preconceptions as insights. Strange, private worlds rarely slip past our guard… Sommer has elected to show us some things we may have over-looked… Sommer charges an ironic or absurd artifact … with the force of an ancient idea."
— Henry Holmes Smith
In a career that spanned seven decades, Sommer created paintings, drawings, and collages, as well as a small but fine body of photographs. Trained as a landscape designer, the Italian-born Sommer immigrated to the U.S. in 1925 and began to make photographs seriously in the 1930s.
Sommer did not practice portrait photography to any great extent. However, he could not pass up the opportunity to photograph this fresh-faced child, who lived across town in Prescott, Arizona. Sommer positioned her against a parched and weathered background that he took with him to the sitting. It provides a striking contrast to her prim dress and clear, piercing eyes.
To create this photograph, Sommer used a large-format eight-by-ten-inch camera to transform the scale of the individual elements. By moving very close to these precisely observed and arranged objects and positioning his camera directly above them, Sommer transformed their everyday quality into pictorial elements of drama and power.
The configuration—and the title that, loosely translated, means "Adam’s carrying case"—suggests a dramatic, totemic figure from a lost civilization. Sommer expertly exploited the wide range of tones that can be coaxed from gelatin silver paper to unite a medley of found objects and create an unexpected relatedness we both recognize and question.
This horizonless view of the Sonoran Desert near Superior, Arizona, is acutely composed and packed edge to edge with descriptive power. The totem-like forms of the saguaro cactus punctuate the undulating desert floor, which is also studded with catclaw, ocotillo, and jumping cholla.
Sommer omitted the bright desert sky and flattened the scene by strategically framing the composition. His perspective encourages a more speculative viewing of the landscape, defined more by the idea of contemplation than by geographic description.
Sommer once stated, "Climatic conditions in the West give things time to decay and come apart slowly. They beautifully exchange characteristics from one to another."
Here, the found remains of four coyotes, stripped of their pelts, present a vivid example of this natural phenomenon. The desiccated carcasses become one with the desert floor, and despite the emphatic rigor mortis of the pack, the composition is full of energy and dynamism.
Frederick Sommer, most widely known as a photographer, also maintained lifelong interests in drawing, painting, collage, poetry and prose. His photographs were first collected by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1941 as part of the Image of Freedom exhibition, and MOMA would go on to collect over 45 pieces in the coming decades. Since then over 50 museums have added Frederick Sommer’s work to their collections, through purchases and gifts, with the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA, and the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson having the two largest holdings. More about collections can be found under Research.
Drawings in the Manner of Musical Scores
In 1934, Frederick Sommer visited Los Angeles. Walking through the art museum one day, he noticed a display of musical scores. He saw them not as music, but as graphics, and found in them an elegance and grace that led him to a careful study of scores and notation.
He found that the best music was visually more effective and attractive. He assumed that there was a correlation between music as we hear it and its notation; and he wondered if drawings that used notational motifs and elements could be played. He made his first “drawings in the manner of musical scores” that year. (After reviewing this text, Fred asked that the author refer to his scores “only” in this way. When the author suggested that it was perhaps too long to be repeated throughout the text, he laughed and said, “Well, use it at least once.”)
Of Sommer’s known works, his drawings, glue-color on paper, photographs, and writings, it is only these scores that have been a part of his creative life throughout the entirety of his artistic career. He was still drawing elegant scores in 1997. And like his skip reading, they are the closest insight to his creative process, thinking and aesthetic.
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Frederick Sommer that can be found at…
Masters of Photography: Frederick Sommer…
Photographs of Frederick Sommer: A Centennial Tribute (Getty)…