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Frederick Sommer in Context


Stieglitz, Grass and Flagpole, 1933 and Sommer, [Grass and Ground], 1935

Left: Alfred Stieglitz, Grass and Flagpole, 1933, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art,
Alfred Stieglitz Collection
Right: Frederick Sommer, [Grass and Ground], 1935, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy and
© Frederick & Frances Sommer Foundation

Alfred Stieglitz

In 1935, two years after his first solo exhibition, Sommer traveled to New York to meet Alfred Stieglitz. A photographer and gallery owner, Stieglitz was a towering figure in the American modern art scene. Sommer showed him his watercolors and received an encouraging response. In Stieglitz, Sommer also met someone who had explored photography as a serious art form for more than 30 years and who had been creating photographic abstractions since the early 1920s by turning his lens on elements of the natural world such as grass and especially clouds. A comparison of an early Sommer contact print with one of Stieglitz’s photographs of grass suggests that the older artist’s work helped guide Sommer’s earliest photographs.

Edward Weston, Shell, 1927

Edward Weston, Shell, 1927, gelatin silver print, Stephen G. Stein Employee Benefit Trust. © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Edward Weston

Sommer first saw Edward Weston’s photographs in 1933 in the limited edition 1932 book The Art of Edward Weston. Sommer subsequently met and befriended Weston in 1936 while on vacation in Los Angeles. Within hours of meeting each other, the two men were sharing work, and Weston’s compositionally arresting and lush prints encouraged Sommer to pursue photography seriously. “[Weston] had a wonderful dedication to photography and he was able to make beautifully rich consistent images of what he saw,” Sommer later wrote. “It was amazing the things he was alerted to. It was very helpful having a friendship with somebody with that much integrity. I was stimulated by him and learned practical things.”[1] This close-up of a halved nautilus shell comes from a ground-breaking group of shell photographs that Weston made in 1927, and it attests to his ability to accentuate and dramatize the forms he saw in nature.[2]

Sommer, The Anatomy of a Chicken, 1939

Frederick Sommer, The Anatomy of a Chicken, 1939, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer 

Chicken Parts

In 1938, on Weston’s advice, Sommer purchased an 8-by-10 inch camera, which he used for many years. Charis Wilson, Weston’s wife, recalled in her memoirs: “We had met Sommer when he visited us in Santa Monica Canyon and showed his postage-stamp-size contact prints of leaves and twigs made from tiny negatives. Edward’s suggestion that he work larger must have had some effect, because [Sommer began] using a view camera like Edward’s, but he still became fixed on unusual subjects.”[3]

The “unusual subjects,” which Sommer considered his first important series of photographs, were arrangements of discarded parts of dead chickens that he obtained from a local grocery store. Weston had created arresting photographs of bell peppers, artichokes, radishes, and other produce in the early 1930s, but Sommer’s willingness to see beauty in the everyday and the messy went even further. Rejecting the term “grotesque” for these images, he insisted that his fascination arose from their striking formal qualities, which he noticed as he watched the butcher work every day. People who balk at these images, Sommer suggested, should examine their own disgust or fear of death, which, after all, is an inevitable part of life. Nevertheless, Sommer’s artful still lifes of dismembered poultry suggest a dark sense of humor and delight in discomfiting viewers. The morbid playfulness of the chicken photographs also foreshadows Sommer’s visual affinity with surrealism, which he would explore in the 1940s.

Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift (Partial and Promised) from a Private Collection. © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Weston’s Landscapes

In the introduction to his 1932 book, Weston wrote, “[T]he most ‘abstract’ art is derived from forms in nature. . . . A photograph may approximate reality, but cannot attain unqualified realism. By contrast, extreme departure from factual recording is possible and relevant to ‘straight’ photography.”[4] In 1936, Weston created some of his most stark and abstract images when he made a series of vertiginously disorienting photographs of the Oceano sand dunes north of Los Angeles. Sommer valued these landscapes greatly and owned two prints from the series.

Weston’s fascination with monumental landscapes continued in the years that followed. In 1937, when he became the first photographer to be awarded a Guggenheim Foundation grant, he used the money to travel around the West with his wife, Charis Wilson, for a year. They visited the Sommers in Arizona in 1938, and the two men went on a day-long outing to photograph together.[5] The book that resulted from Weston and Wilson’s trips (California and the West [1940]) contains numerous photographs that demonstrate Weston’s influential engagement with the grand vistas and rugged terrain of the Western landscape. Sommer surely knew these later photographs, but the abstract forms and textures he began to photograph in the Arizona landscape in the early 1940s remained influenced by Weston’s earlier views of Oceano.

Sommer, Arizona Landscape, 1942

Frederick Sommer, Arizona Landscape, 1942, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mary and Dan Solomon and Patrons’ Permanent Fund. © Frederick & Frances Sommer Foundation

Photographing Arizona

Sommer first experimented with using his large-format camera to photograph landscapes in 1938, but it was not until 1941 that he began making “horizonless landscapes” of his adopted home. For a man who grew up in tropical Brazil and studied landscape architecture at a college in verdant upstate New York, understanding a landscape devoid of prominent, distinct features and obvious activity took time. “Unless we want to become abandoned or estranged we have to come to terms with our environment,” Sommer later wrote. “From not finding in the desert what I was accustomed to seeing in a landscape, I gradually had to realize that other things make up a landscape. The desert can be a stingy, stark situation, but by the time you take a few pictures you start to see the interrelationships.”[6]

Sommer, Untitled, 1947

Frederick Sommer, Untitled, 1947, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer



Lacking distinct singular objects on which to focus the eye, these photographs produce a hypnotic, pulsating effect. Edward Steichen, then the director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, seemed to notice this when he observed in a 1949 letter to Sommer, “The quality of precision in your prints becomes more than naturalistic representation, the image assumes an acute reality of its own.”[7]






Weston, Dead Man, Colorado Desert, 1937

Edward Weston, Dead Man, Colorado Desert, 1937, gelatin silver print, Collection Center for Creative Photography. © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Although by all accounts a warm, gregarious, and outgoing man, Sommer rarely photographed people, preferring to make pictures of nature and abandoned human artifacts. The only creatures that appear in his desert pictures are the dead coyotes, rabbits, and mules he found there. The perception of the Western landscape as a harsh, inhospitable, and even deadly place was one that Sommer shared with Edward Weston. Aside from a single portrait of his wife, the only image of a person that Weston included in California and the West, the book he published in 1940 from his Guggenheim-funded travels, was a photograph of a dead man whom he had found in the Colorado Desert, a part of the larger Sonora Desert located in California. Though Sommer also owned a print of this photograph, his own photographs of death in the desert differ from Weston’s in subtle but important ways. While Weston presents a tragic picture of a man who did not belong in the desert, Sommer captures decomposing and desiccated bodies that blend into the earth in a way that suggests that they do belong there.

Sommer, Coyotes, 1941

Frederick Sommer, Coyotes, 1941, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

Sommer, Coyotes, 1945

Frederick Sommer, Coyotes, 1945, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

Charles Sheeler, Side of White Barn, 1917

Charles Sheeler, Side of White Barn, 1917, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, New Century Fund

Charles Sheeler

Charles Sheeler (1883–1965) was yet another artist whose vision and artistic method were models for Sommer. The two first met in 1940 when Sommer visited Sheeler, arriving with a note of introduction from Edward Weston. The two men traded work during the two-day visit, and Sommer acquired, among others, a print of Sheeler’s Side of White Barn. The photograph dates to an early period of Sheeler’s photographic career, which had begun around 1910. Sheeler, who was trained as a painter in Philadelphia, at first used the camera to supplement his income as a freelance photographer of art and local architecture. Over the course of a decade, however, as a member of Alfred Stieglitz’s circle, Sheeler started to use the camera in novel ways to capture the starkly geometric, almost abstract details of the unadorned buildings near Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where the artist had his studio.[8] By 1917, Sheeler’s photography had become integral to his art.[9]

Sommer, Taylor, Arizona, 1945

Frederick Sommer, Taylor, Arizona, 1945, gelatin silver print, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Frederick Sommer

Sommer admired Sheeler for his ability to integrate painting and photography into his artistic practice. He was impressed with Sheeler’s “elegant economy [which] produce[d] beautiful paintings and photographs that are not ashamed of each other.”[10] Sheeler was also a draughtsman and filmmaker, and he frequently explored the same imagery across multiple media.[11] Though Sommer never tried to both draw and photograph the same subjects, he pushed photographic abstraction to its limits when he incorporated his fluid and organic hand-drawn lines into the photographs he made using cameraless negatives and cut paper.

[1] Quoted in Lyons and Cox, The Art of Frederick Sommer, 210.

[2] For more on the genesis of this series of photographs, see Susan Danly and Weston J. Naef, Edward Weston in Los Angeles, exh. cat., (San Marino, CA and Los Angeles, 1986) and Nancy Newhall, ed., The Daybooks of Edward Weston, vol. 2 (Rochester, NY, 1966).

[3] Charis Wilson, Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston (New York, 1998), 169–170.

[4] Edward Weston, Edward Weston (New York, 1932), 8.

[5] Danly and Naef, Edward Weston in Los Angeles, 39.

[6] Quoted in Lyons and Cox, The Art of Frederick Sommer, 211.

[7] Ibid., 226.

[8] Jessica Murphy. "Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)," Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009).

[9] Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Norman Keyes, Jr, Charles Sheeler: The Photographs (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987).

[10] Quoted in Philadelphia College of Art, Frederick Sommer, 6.

[11] For more on this aspect of Sheeler’s art, see “Charles Sheeler: Across Media.” National Gallery of Art, 2006.