“Photographs, Drawings, and Collages by Frederick Sommer”

If Frederick Sommer’s work is compelling, it is also elusive, even downright odd. Born in Italy and raised in Brazil, he trained as a landscape architect at Cornell. Forced to abandon that profession when he contracted tuberculosis in 1930, at the age of twenty-five, he became an artist instead. After undergoing treatment in Switzerland, he moved to Arizona to recuperate, where he would live for the better part of seven decades. This biographical confluence does not delimit or define his work, but his career-ending ailment was certainly one impetus for his art—an extended meditation on illusion, decay, and death—which he pursued until shortly before his demise this year.

Although he made drawings, paintings, and collages, Sommer is best known for his austere, sometimes puzzling photographs. Most famous is the untitled 1939 photo of an amputated foot, which made Sommer look like something of a sensation seeker. Then there are his Arizona landscapes, which he started in 1941—horizonless expanses of parched, clumpy ground. And let’s not forget the butchered-chicken-parts photos, or the ones of dead and moldering desert animals. To many contemporaries familiar with the work of his American peers, especially in the ’40s and ’50s, Sommer’s images must have looked quite strange. His pictures had none of the libidinal tastiness of Edward Weston’s peppers or the howlingly majestic vistas of Ansel Adams’s West. He was friendly with Weston and championed by Minor White, but most in the photography world were unenthusiastic.

Sommer’s allure nestles somewhere between his enigmatic handling of personal iconography and his lapidary techniques. Consider, for example, that amputated foot. In the wall text, curators Jay M. Fisher and Leland Rice call the photograph and other early “grotesque” images “atypical,” one of my few points of disagreement with the organizers of this exquisitely realized show. OK, so Sommer was not primarily a photographer of severed limbs. But he was drawn throughout his career to the partial and the discarded: a doll’s arm, a shard of wood, a piece of pipe. He would create such fragments if they weren’t to be found; then he’d bring them together in assemblages, where they took on new shapes and meanings, coalesced into miniature worlds. Once photographed, they’d be disassembled. With the amputated foot he found a subject that revealed an entire universe within its details: a vibrant microcosm born of what we’re unable or afraid to recognize.

And you do have to overcome a certain amount of fear to look closely at this photo: A hobo’s foot marked by a gaping wound is not intrinsically enticing. Once the squeamishness is put aside, though, the foot—and especially its wound—takes on a decided fascination. Sommer doesn’t trick it out in gory splendor; instead, the wound is shown as an island of mysterious, blossoming construction, with stalky shafts and pillowy forms resting in a wet, inky bed. The details are a bit obscured, played down, as if Sommer believed that showing too much would interfere with our ability to see at all.

For Sommer, making art was cerebral as well as visual, and he did his own spin on Duchamp’s disdain for purely “retinal” art. That’s one reason the Surrealists, in exile from wartime Europe, took him up. He met Man Ray and Max Ernst in 1941, and he and Ernst became friends. VVV, the American Surrealist magazine, reproduced two of his Arizona landscape photos and four drawings in 1944. The photographer’s ties to that movement are made explicit both in this show and in its companion exhibition, “Surrealist Art from the BMA’s Collection.”

There’s little doubt that Sommer was influenced by those artists, especially by Ernst (although he later dissociated himself from them). Whatever his disavowals, you can see the Surrealists’ effect on his collages and drawings. But a strange thing happens when Sommer’s art is set alongside theirs. Far from being flattened by the comparison with his more celebrated precursors, Sommer comes out ahead. His work remains satisfyingly elliptical and reserved, while many of the Surrealist pieces look alternately bombastic, ostentatious, or cartoony.

Even Ernst’s wonderful collages in Une semaine de bonté, 1934 (included in the companion show), appear somehow too narrative and literal, with his fantastic creatures set within rational spaces. Sommer, though, abandoned any pretext of illusionistic space, making his weathered, paint-marked surfaces function as both figure and ground. So the engraved dancing figures in Moon Culmination, 1961, seem to merge with the curdled paint blobs and stains that surround them, a magical transmutation from image to matter and back again.

But Sommer also just lets some things stick out like a sore thumb—or a sore severed head—which is what he did in the chicken-parts pictures, my personal favorites. The curators have included only one, the simplest, most elegant of the lot, featuring a single curving shape of a chicken’s head and neck tissue, its eyes masked by a membrane blindfold. Was this Sommer’s way of signaling our basic inability to see? Or even of suggesting that mere seeing is insufficient? Both questions are germane to his practice of making enigmatic if meticulously realized images that challenge the tidy categories of photography. His pictures never quite give everything up, which either frustrates the viewer or repeatedly draws one in.

Carol Squiers is senior editor of American Photo.