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Frederick Sommer

(1905—1999)


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(1905–99).

Photographer and painter. His understated but disquieting photographs often treat decay, disintegration, and desolation. Among his most original works, horizonless desert landscapes are filled with crisp detail and yet devoid of incident. Sommer also employed varied photographic and mixed-media techniques to produce abstract prints. Most notably, he developed a method of capturing patterns of smoke on glass and then printing from these “negatives,” which he sometimes altered by hand. Born Fritz Carlos Sommer in Angri, Italy, he moved in 1913 with his family to Brazil. As a young man, he trained as an architect in Rio de Janeiro before moving to the United States in 1925. After earning a master's degree two years later in landscape architecture at Cornell University, he returned to Brazil to practice. Seeking a cure for tuberculosis, he moved to Switzerland in 1930 and the following year to Tucson, Arizona. In 1939 he was naturalized as a United States citizen. During convalescence, he turned to painting and drawing, while also expanding the broad grasp of philosophy, science, and art that characterized his intellect. In the mid-1930s, after meeting Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, photography became his principal interest. By the late 1930s, he was producing elegant but disturbing compositions that often included such unanticipated subjects as dead animals or chicken entrails. To many observers, a 1939 image of an amputated leg and foot proved particularly challenging. In 1941 he began to photograph the harsh desert landscape with a directness that contrasted startlingly with conventional interests in revealing the beauty of nature. In these, he often directed his view so that the ground extends in all directions beyond the edge of the frame, forming an unremitting vista of impeccably printed rubble. Some of these precede, and may even have influenced, the abstract expressionists' all-over compositions. In the same year, he also established a friendship with Max Ernst, who recognized and encouraged inherently surrealistic tendencies in his work. In the late 1940s Sommer began to experiment with varied photographic processes, including photograms, montages, and paint-on-cellophane, as well as the smoked glass technique. In 1962 he started photographing cut paper abstractions, which he hung and lighted to enhance their spatial drama. Anticipating postmodern appropriation, he also created new works of art by altering and photographing works by other artists. His two-volume Sommer: Words and Pictures appeared in 1984. Active as an artist into his nineties, he died at his home in Prescott, Arizona, where he had lived since 1935.

Subjects: Art.


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