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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Frederick Sommer

Dates:  1905, 7 September - 1999, 23 January
Born:  Italy, Angri
Active:  US
American photographer and artist who experimented with a variety of techniques and frequently used assemblages of material to create sensuously beautiful images of disturbing subjects.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Frederick Sommer
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

Frederick Sommer’s photographs marry a surrealist imagination with brilliant photographic technique: the airless Arizona Landscapes are his most famous and personal creation. Devoid of markers of scale or distance, these panoramic views seem like endless expanses of space, immeasurable and sublime. In 1939 he created a series of grotesque still-lifes, depicting the heads and entrails of chickens with perfect precision. Sommer’s images are often akin to surrealist paintings, mysterious, tense or foreboding in mood, and suggesting as he said, that "something metaphysical is happening". 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.

Biography provided by Focal Press 
Known for his black and white contact prints of exceptional tonal beauty and his probing philosophical approach, he explored a wide range of visual expressions that merged painting, drawing, music, and the photographic image. Influenced by Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Weston, he began making photographs in 1935. His idiosyncratic choices of still life objects steeped in putrescence have a formal elegance, their structure and associations laden with psychological depth. His photographs of cut paper constructions, assemblages and lensless images of smoke on glass are a fantastical counterpoint to his horizon-less depictions of the southwest landscape. Sommer worked in relative isolation in Arizona for more than fifty years, his prominence coming late in his career. 
(Author: Garie Waltzer - Photographer and consultant) 
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 

Further research

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Bill Jay
Frederick Sommer 
Family history 
If you are related to this photographer and interested in tracking down your extended family we can place a note here for you to help. It is free and you would be amazed who gets in touch.

Visual indexes

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Supplemental information


Frederick Sommer
(American, 1905-1999)

In an influential career that spanned seven decades, Frederick Sommer created paintings, drawings, and collages, composed musical scores and created an influential body of work in photography. Sommer was born in Angri, Italy but raised in Brazil. In 1925 he traveled to Cornell University to study landscape architecture, where he met and married Frances Watson. In 1930 Sommer was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His confinement and recuperation in Switzerland led to a program of reading in art and philosophy, and an interest in photography. Eventually the Sommers returned to the United States, later settling in Prescott, Arizona. In 1939 Sommer became an American citizen.
In 1936 Sommer met Edward Weston and they became close friends. Inspired by Weston’s example, Sommer purchased an 8 x 10 Century Universal view camera in 1938. He began making a series of close-ups of still-lifes of chicken heads (discarded by his butcher), entrails and other dead animals. Subsequently he purchased a longer focal length lens for this camera allowing him to photograph distant landscapes.
Throughout the 40s, Sommer pursued painting, drawing and photography. He began a series of landscape views of the Arizona desert where he isolated the austere Arizona hillsides and reduced them to abstract patterns. Sommer intentionally created flattened landscapes that lacked a single focal point, calling into question photography’s objectivity and suggesting a new way of seeing. Sommer was drawn to the subtle range of gray tones achievable with silver gelatin prints and the practice of contact printing. At an exhibition of his work in Los Angeles, Sommer met Man Ray and Max Ernst, who were living in Los Angeles. Over the years, Sommer collected scraps of billboard posters, children’s toys, pieces of torn wallpaper and fragments of rusted metal. By 1946 he was making photographs from these found objects which he assembled into Surrealist collages. The collages often required considerable hand work in the negatives.
In the 1950s Sommer developed a process of painting on glass to create cameraless negatives and began experimenting with a Leica 35 mm camera. Later he experimented with processes such as cliché verre, painting on cellophane and smoke on foil. He would paint in oil or deposit smoke from a candle onto a transparent surface and then place it in an enlarger to create negatives of his abstract compositions. Designed only for use as negatives, he often destroyed these transparent paintings after making a satisfactory print. In 1962 he began to make his first cut paper photographs.
In the 1950s, Sommer’s reputation grew, aided by friends such as Ernst, Aaron Siskind, Edward Steichen and Minor White who brought his work to the attention of important photography venues such as The Museum of Modern Art, the Institute of Design, Chicago and Aperture magazine. Sommer also had an active teaching career. In 1957 Sommer was appointed a lecturer in photography at the Institute of Design, a one-year replacement position for Harry Callahan. He also taught at Prescott College for several years until 1971. Sommer continued to experiment in the years that followed, producing work in a variety of media until the year before his death in 1999.
Frederick Sommer’s legacy lives on at the Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation the Center for Creative Photography, and several prominent museums including, The J. Paul Getty Museum and The Museum of Modern Art.
Source: Dr. Douglas R. Nickel, Director Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Lecture 2005, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation.
[Contributed by the Etherton Gallery]  

Internet biographies

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Wikipedia has a biography of this photographer. Go to website
Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
[NOTE: This is a subscription service and you will need to pay an annual fee to access the content.]
 Go to website
The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA has a biography on this photographer. [Scroll down the page on this website as the biography may not be immediately visible.] Go to website

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.211 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.472-473 
• Coke, Van Deren with Diana C. Du Pont 1986 Photography: A Facet of Modernism (New York: Hudson Hills Press, The San Francisco Museum of Art) p.184 
• Evans, Martin Marix (Executive ed.) 1995 Contemporary Photographers [Third Edition] (St. James Press - An International Thomson Publishing Company) [Expensive reference work but highly informative.] 
• Witkin, Lee D. and Barbara London 1979 The Photograph Collector’s Guide (London: Secker and Warburg) p.239-240 [Long out of print but an essential reference work - the good news is that a new edition is in preparation.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Naef, Weston 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum - Handbook of the Photographic Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p.206 
• Naef, Weston 2004 Photographers of Genius at the Getty (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) [For this photographer there is a description and three sample photographs from the Getty collection. p.160-163] 
• Newhall, Beaumont 1982 The History of Photography - Fifth Edition (London: Secker & Warburg) [One or more photographs by Frederick Sommer are included in this classic history.] 
• Szarkowski, John 1973 Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art) p.162 [Analyzes a single photograph by Frederick Sommer.] 


The wit and wisdom.

"Abstraction is a portable structure within the transitiveness of events. The development of intelligence in the universe may hinge on this beautiful phenomenon."
"Art is not arbitrary. A fine painting is not there by accident; it is not arrived at by chance. We are sensitive to tonalities. The smallest modification of tonality affects structure. Some things have to be rather large, but elegance is the presentation of things in their minimum dimensions"
"If I could find them in nature I would photograph them. I make them because through photography I have a knowledge of things that can‘t be found."
"There are many ways of seeing. ...sight can be developed into insight."
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