Museum Home Past Exhibitions The Photographs of Frederick Sommer: A Centennial Tribute

May 10–September 4, 2005 at the Getty Center

Max Ernst / F. Sommer
Max Ernst, 1946
© Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation
audio Hear why Max Ernst felt this was the definitive portrait of him.

The year 2005 marks the centennial of the birth of Frederick Sommer (American, born Italy, 1905–1999). In a career that spanned seven decades, Sommer created paintings, drawings, and collages, as well as a small but fine body of photographs. Trained as a landscape designer, the Italian-born Sommer immigrated to the U.S. in 1925 and began to make photographs seriously in the 1930s.

In his photographs Sommer wanted to show connections between the ever-changing forms of the universe and, in his words, to "teach people that imagination is the finest order." All the photographs in this exhibition are from the Museum's collection of more than 100 photographs by Sommer. Most were acquired from the artist during his lifetime.

Sommer made the portrait above, of his friend the artist Max Ernst, by printing two separate negatives onto a single sheet of paper to convey the essence of Ernst's character.

Livia / F. Sommer
Livia, 1948
© Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation

Sommer did not practice portrait photography to any great extent. However, he could not pass up the opportunity to photograph this fresh-faced child, who lived across town in Prescott, Arizona. Sommer positioned her against a parched and weathered background that he took with him to the sitting. It provides a striking contrast to her prim dress and clear, piercing eyes.

Livia's slightly upward-turning glance suggests that Sommer stood up behind the camera just before the exposure. Although Livia remained perfectly still, her eyes followed him as he rose.

Valise d'Adam / F. Sommer
Valise d'Adam, 1949
© Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation
audio Hear about the symbolic meaning in this photograph.

To create this photograph, Sommer used a large-format eight-by-ten-inch camera to transform the scale of the individual elements. By moving very close to these precisely observed and arranged objects and positioning his camera directly above them, Sommer transformed their everyday quality into pictorial elements of drama and power.

The configuration—and the title that, loosely translated, means "Adam's carrying case"—suggests a dramatic, totemic figure from a lost civilization. Sommer expertly exploited the wide range of tones that can be coaxed from gelatin silver paper to unite a medley of found objects and create an unexpected relatedness we both recognize and question.

Arizona Landscape / F. Sommer
Arizona Landscape, 1945
© Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation

This horizonless view of the Sonoran Desert near Superior, Arizona, is acutely composed and packed edge to edge with descriptive power. The totem-like forms of the saguaro cactus punctuate the undulating desert floor, which is also studded with catclaw, ocotillo, and jumping cholla.

Sommer omitted the bright desert sky and flattened the scene by strategically framing the composition. His perspective encourages a more speculative viewing of the landscape, defined more by the idea of contemplation than by geographic description.

Coyotes / F. Sommer
Coyotes, 1945
© Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation
audio Hear about the ideas of life and death that Sommer explored in this image.

Sommer once stated, "Climatic conditions in the West give things time to decay and come apart slowly. They beautifully exchange characteristics from one to another."

Here, the found remains of four coyotes, stripped of their pelts, present a vivid example of this natural phenomenon. The desiccated carcasses become one with the desert floor, and despite the emphatic rigor mortis of the pack, the composition is full of energy and dynamism.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Center, Museum, West Pavilion.