PRINT May 1999


Frederick Sommer

FREDERICK SOMMER was an anomaly in American art, a photographer of desert landscapes, chicken parts, and collaged Old Master prints who was equally at ease with Max Ernst and Edward Weston. That he was a friend of both suggests the convergence of two otherwise discrete twentieth-century strands: American Purism, which pursued the sharp delineation of detail, and European Surrealism, which treasured intuition, chance, and the meld of horror and humor. Sommer’s photographs (of which there are few, given a career that spanned half a century) encompass both, using polished technique and a large-format camera to describe subjects of little inherent consequence but great symbolic heft. Sommer would put paint on a piece of cellophane and use the result as a negative; the finely crafted prints that resulted were given portentous but somehow apt titles like Paracelsus. His photographic variations on Ernst’s notion of frottage were many, although he never sullied the surface of the print, only the negative. The influence of Sommer, who is the subject of a retrospective currently on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, can be seen today in work as disparate as that of Emmet Gowin, Joel-Peter Witkin, and (think of those cellophane negatives) James Welling.