Frederick Sommer, 93, Maker of Inventive, Surreal Images

New York Times
February 1, 1999


Frederick Sommer, whose distinctive images of surrealist collages, horizonless landscapes, blurry nudes and cameraless abstractions influenced generations of photographers, died on Jan. 23 at his home in Prescott, Ariz. He was 93.

Variously described as a gadfly, an eccentric, a photographer's photographer and the Joseph Cornell of photography, Sommer worked in relative isolation in Arizona for more than a half-century and until the last several years was the medium's best-kept secret.

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.

Several decades before the term "postmodernism" was coined, Sommer photographed his recreations of other artists' work. An avid student of art and philosophy who early on displayed a gift for drawing, he formed new images out of lithographs by tearing parts of them off or slicing them up or recombining bits and pieces.

Sommer's critics in the '50s seemed particularly offended by a photograph he had taken in 1939 of an amputated leg and foot. His subjects in the '30s and '40s included dead animals, entrails and other refuse in the desert near Prescott. He also carefully arranged chicken parts to form intriguing new shapes.

Sommer made surrealist compositions out of doll parts and, in the '60s, created abstract expressionist cameraless images out of candle smoke deposits or oil paint pressed between sheets of cellophane.

Over the last few years, though, critics, curators and collectors seem to have finally discovered Sommer. His photographs are being offered at major auction houses.

In 1992, the Nazraeli Press in Tucson, Ariz., published a book of his work, "All Children Are Ambassadors," and subsequently issued two boxed reproductions of his images on cards. In 1994, the Getty Museum acquired more than 100 of his photographs and collages, and the same year held an exhibition of his work. An exhibition of his photographs, drawings and collages opens at the Baltimore Museum of Art on March 31.

Born in Italy in 1905, Sommer had set out to be a landscape architect. He grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where his father, Carlos, a German national, had established a landscape architecture firm and nursery. He received a master's degree in landscape architecture at Cornell University, where he met his wife, Frances.

In the early 1930s, he taught watercolor, drawing and design at a private studio and worked on his own watercolors. It was after he showed his work to Alfred Stieglitz in 1935 that he formed a fresh view of photography in relation to art.

A subsequent meeting with Edward Weston led him to replace smaller cameras with an 8-by-10-inch view camera, with which he began to take pictures of what he found in and about Prescott. At a party in California in 1941, Sommer met the surrealist Max Ernst and from then on the surreal became a prominent component of his work.

When the fine-art photography market was in its infancy in the early 1970s, Sommer signed on as one of the original 13 artists to be exclusively represented by the Light Gallery, one of only two galleries in New York devoted to photography at the time. In 1976, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson acquired a major collection of his photographs.

Sommer, who is survived by his wife, was a surrealist in more ways than one. "Life," he once said, "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."


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