Obituary: Frederick Sommer

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The Independent Culture
FREDERICK SOMMER was a photographer who influenced generations with his distinctive, often surreal, images of collages, horizonless landscapes, blurry nudes and cameraless abstractions. Often described as a gadfly, an eccentric and a photographer's photographer, Sommer worked in Arizona for more than 50 years before surrendering his relative obscurity, in the last few years of his life, to photography collectors and museums.

His low profile stemmed from 1950s attitudes to photography, when many of the established photographers favoured a documentary and aesthetically easy approach to photography and dismissed Sommer's work as unphotogenic and unpleasant. His critics were particularly offended by a photograph he had taken in 1939 of an amputated leg and foot, as well as a series he took in the desert in the 1930s and 1940s of dead animals and other detritus. That series included chicken parts carefully arranged to form strange new shapes.

Sommer photographed recreations of other artists' work decades before the practice became an established routine in post-modernism. He would tear lithographs apart and then recombine the bits and pieces to form new images; he constructed surrealist compositions out of dismantled dolls and, in the 1960s, created abstract, cameraless images out of candle smoke deposits or oil paint pressed between sheets of cellophane.

Sommer was born in Italy in 1905, and was an avid student of art and philosophy who early on displayed a gift for drawing, although he initially set out to be a landscape architect. He grew up in Rio de Janeiro where his father had established a landscape architecture firm. Sommer later received a master's degree in landscape architecture at Cornell University.

In the early 1930s, he taught drawing and design in New York. Then, in 1935, he showed his work to the photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who encouraged him to form a fresh view of photography in relation to art.

A later meeting with Edward Weston led him to replace smaller cameras with a larger, 8-by-10-inch view camera, with which he began to take pictures of what he found in and about Prescott, Arizona, where he then lived with his wife, Frances. At a party in California in 1941, Sommer met the Surrealist Max Ernst and from then on the surreal became a defining component of his work.

In the 1970s, when the market for fine-art photography was still in its infancy, Sommer joined 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.

However, it was only in the last few years that critics, curators and collectors seem to have finally discovered Sommer and his work is now offered at auction. In 1992, the Nazraeli Press in Tucson, Arizona, published a book of his work, All Children are Ambassadors, and two years later the Getty Museum acquired more than 100 of his photographs and collages, and held an exhibition of his work.

Edward Helmore

Frederick Sommer, photographer: born 1905; married; died Prescott, Arizona 23 January 1999.