Sommer, Frederick 1905-1999

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SOMMER, Frederick 1905-1999

PERSONAL: Born September 7, 1905, in Angri, Italy; died January 23, 1999, in Prescott, AZ; son of Carlos Sommer (a city planner); married, wife's name Frances.

CAREER: Photographer. Exhibitions: Works included in permanent collections at Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ; Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Art Institute of Chicago, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana; Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, OH; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson; Norton Simon Museum of Art, Pasadena, CA. Solo exhibitions include Increase Robinson Gallery, Chicago, IL, 1934; Howard Putzel Gallery, Hollywood, CA, 1937; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA, 1946; Egan Gallery, New York, NY, 1949; Institute of Design; Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago, 1957; Wittenborn Gallery, New York, NY, 1959; Art Institute of Chicago, 1963; Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, DC, 1965 (traveled to the Pasadena Art Museum, CA); Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, 1967; San Fernando State College (with Wynn Bullock and Edmund Teske), Northridge, CA, 1967; Philadelphia College of Art, 1968; Light Gallery, New York, NY, 1972; Center for Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL, 1973; Light Gallery (with Michael Bishop and Carl Toth), 1977; Arizona Bank Gallery (with Ansel Adams), Phoenix, 1977; Princeton Art Museum, New Jersey Light Gallery, 1979; Frederick Sommer at 75, California State University at Long Beach (retrospective; toured United States, 1980-81, traveled to London, 1981); Venus, Jupiter and Mars: The Photographs of Frederick Sommer, Delaware Art Museum, Newark, 1980; Serpentine Gallery, London, 1981; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 1985; Frederick Sommer: Photographs and Drawings, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York, 1986; Frederick Sommer: Horizonless Landscapes, Pace/MacGill Gallery, 1992; and Recent Collages, Pace/MacGill Gallery, 1994.

Group exhibitions include Realism in Photography, Museum of Modern Art, 1949; Photography at Mid-Century, International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, 1950; Abstraction in Photography, Museum of Modern Art, 1951; Contemporary Photography: Japan and America, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, Japan, 1953; Photography in America 1850-1965, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1965; Photography in the Twentieth Century, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (toured Canada and the United States, 1967-74), 1967; Photographic Surrealism, New Gallery of Contemporary Art, Cleveland (traveled to Dayton Art Institute, Ohio, and Brooklyn Museum, New York), 1979; Photography in the '50s, International Center of Photography, New York (traveled to the University of Arizona, Tucson, Minneapolis Institute of Art, California State University at Long Beach, and the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington); American Images 1945-80, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1985; Photography and Art 1946-86, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1987; and Pace/MacGill Gallery, 1990 and 1992.

AWARDS, HONORS: Arizona Governor's Arts Award, 1987.


(With John Weiss) Venus, Jupiter, and Mars: ThePhotographs of Frederick Sommer, Delaware Art Museum (Wilmington, DE), 1980.

The Mistress of This World Has No Name, with essay by Stephen Aldrich, Denver Art Museum (Denver, CO), 1987.

SIDELIGHTS: Sidetracked from a landscape-architect career because of tuberculosis, Frederick Sommer opted for a life in the arts and succeeded as a photographer. Margarett Loke, in a New York Times obituary, said Sommer's "distinctive images of surrealist collages, horizonless landscapes, blurry nudes and cameraless abstractions influenced generations of photographers."

Loke quoted Sommer as saying, "Life is the most durable fiction that matter has yet to come up with, and art is the structure of matter as life's most durable fiction."

Sommer, the son of a city planner, studied architecture in Brazil as a youth and received a scholarship to attend Cornell University's graduate program before completing his undergraduate education, and before he could even speak English fluently.

After he contracted tuberculosis in 1930, he taught painting and drawing privately. Several years later, he moved to Prescott, Arizona, to recuperate. He lived there the rest of his life, photographing the town's landscapes and sights regularly. The beauty and decay of the desert influenced much of his work. He continued to paint, draw, and make abstract photographs—including camera-less shots and others employing montage—and write music and treatises on aesthetics until his death.

Sommer's trademark photography depicts the likes of peeling walls, sculpture, portraits of trash, chicken parts, and other found-object abstractions. Inspired by his correspondence with photographer Alfred Stieglitz and by the work of Edward Weston, Sommer began to concentrate on photography in the mid-1930s. Based on Stieglitz's advice, Sommer started to reinvent himself as an artist. Weston inspired him to adopt a much larger camera, and his meeting with painter Max Ernst at a party in California in 1941 marked the start of his lifelong experimentation with surrealist images.

Loke suggested that Sommer was photography's "bestkept secret" until his final years, when some top critics were finally acknowledging him and large collections, such as the Getty Museum, began acquiring his works. She wrote, "His obscurity stemmed in part from the 1950s, when many of the important shapers of the public's view of photography, who clearly favored documentary essays and aesthetically pleasing landscapes, dismissed Sommer's work as unphotographic." Loke held up Sommer's 1939 untitled photographs of an amputated leg and foot as two of his most critically controversial early pieces.

In 1999, less than two months after his death, the Baltimore Museum of Art presented Photographs, Drawings, and Collages by Frederick Sommer, featuring "Arizona Landscape" (1943) and "Untitled" (the amputated foot photo) from 1939. Carol Squiers wrote in Artforum International, "you do have to overcome a certain amount of fear to look closely at this photo: A hobo's foot marked by a gaping wound is not intrinsically enticing. Once the squeamishness is put aside, though, the foot—and especially its wound—takes on a decided fascination."

Leah Ollman, in the Los Angeles Times, described a 2000 exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum, "He photographed animal carcasses and placenta with unapologetic frankness and combined old engravings to make complex photographic montages."

"Many of the images evoke horror, but usually the physical precision of the surfaces is such that they seem 'beautiful' at the same time, and thus hang, dialectically poised, between these two extremes," said a Contemporary Photographers writer. The writer cited Sommer's 1948 photograph "Livia," the portrait of a young child juxtaposed against an old weathered wall, and "Medallion," in which a doll's head replaces the image of the child, intensifying the feeling of decay. The writer identified characteristic Sommer elements in each work: a sense of field and a textured gray background that extends beyond the frame.

The same writer described a phase of romantic tone in Sommer's career, falling in the late 1940s, during which the artist completed "Venus, Jupiter and Mars," a work depicting two men and a woman drinking tea. The figures inhabit an old advertising poster, yet are repositioned."In a gentler, more romantic mode, Sommer's photographs of old posters, usually containing human figures, repeat the theme of dissolution," the writer said. Describing "Venus, Jupiter and Mars," he wrote, "The poster is ripped, and peels away to reveal the wall beneath. At the same time the peeling process partially obliterates the features of the three figures. The image suggests the transience of human passion and beauty."

Reviewing the artist's 2000 show for Artforum International, David Levi Strauss wrote, "One might not expect paintings and drawings of organic abstraction in a show drawn from the photographer's estate, but there they were, provocatively on display among four of the more familiar gelatin-silver prints: four drawings in ink on charcoal paper and four paintings in tempera on stretched canvas." Strauss deemed the show "risky and delightful."

Sommer in the 1960s painted sheets of cellophane or coated them with grease or smoke, and manipulated the images with a stylus, ultimately making photographic prints."The images," Ollman said, "are abstract, vaguely organic, biomorphic—one evokes a slippery tangle of kelp, another a twisting human torso—and sumptuous in their range of tones against an inky background."



Ades, Dawn, Dada and Surrealism Reviewed (exhibition catalogue), Arts Council of Great Britain (London, England), 1978.

All Children are Ambassadors, Nazraeli Press (Tucson, AZ), 1992.

Almanac of Famous People, sixth edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Amerikanische Landschafts-photographie 1860-1978 (exhibition catalogue), introduction by Klaus-Jürgen Sembach (Munich, Germany), 1978.

Bledsoe, Jane K. and Constance W. Glenn, FrederickSommer at Seventy-Five: A Retrospective, Long Beach: Art Museum and Galleries, California State University (Long Beach, CA), 1980.

Browne, Turner and Elaine Partnow, MacmillanBiographical Encyclopedia of Photographic Artists and Innovators, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1983.

Conkelton, Sheryl, Frederick Sommer, G. K. Hall (New York, NY), 1995.

Frederick Sommer: An Exhibition of Photographs (exhibition catalogue), text by Gerald Nordland, [Philadelphia, PA], 1968.

Frederick Sommer: Photographs, Drawings and Musical Scores (exhibition catalogue), [London, England], 1981.

Gauss, Kathleen McCarthy, and Andy Grundberg, Photography and Art 1946-86 (exhibition catalogue), [Los Angeles, CA], 1987.

Hall-Duncan, Nancy, Photographic Surrealism, exhibition catalogue, The Gallery (Cleveland, OH), 1979.

Photographic Process as Medium (exhibition catalogue), text by Rosanne T. Livingston, Rutgers University Art Gallery (New Brunswick, NJ), 1975.

Weiss, John, editor, Venus, Jupiter and Mars: ThePhotographs of Frederick Sommer (exhibition catalogue), Delaware Art Museum (Newark, DE), 1980.


Art in America, July 1995, Michael Duncan, "Frederick Sommer at the Getty Museum," pp. 92-93.

Art Forum International, summer 1999, Carol Squiers, "Photographs, Drawings, and Collages by Frederick Sommer," p. 148; January, 2000, p. 116.

Los Angeles Times, January 9, 1997, Susan Kandel, "A Mix of the Irrational and Elegance in Sommer Works," p. 6; January 6, 2000, Leah Ollman, "Sommer's Photos Capture Complex, Mystical Worlds," p. F-27.


Profotos, (August 3, 2002).



Fresno Bee, February 1, 1999, p. C-13.

Independent, February 5, 1999, Edward Helmore, p. 7.

New York Times, February 1, 1999, Margarett Loke, "Frederick Sommer, 93, Maker of Inventive, Surreal Images."*

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Sommer, Frederick 1905-1999

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