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September 29th, 2009
Exhibition Surveys the Distinguished and Wide-Ranging Career of Surrealist Photographer Frederick Sommer

Frederick Sommer (1905-1999) crafted a vision inflected by Surrealist ideas, elements of surprise and chance, and an acute sense of design. He experimented with many forms of art while making photography his primary endeavor. The Philadelphia Museum of Art presents Frederick Sommer Photographs, a survey of his art over five decades, with some 40 photographs shown along with drawings and collages, including all of his central motifs and many of his best-known works. Among the images on view are several of his desert landscapes from the 1940s, horizon-less images that only gradually resolve their components into landscapes, and bewildering subjects such as “Max Ernst” (1946), an exhibition highlight, in which Sommer superimposed an image of an aged concrete wall onto a portrait of his friend, the pioneering Dada and Surrealist artist, to create the illusion of a man morphing into rock. Other highlights include a rare suite of macabre and humorous yet poignant photographs the artist made in 1939 using chicken parts collected from his butcher, and which reflect the artist's determination to find mystery and grace in the most debased aspects of physical existence. There are also numerous examples of Sommer's later experiments photographing other artworks, including his own elegant paper cutouts of the 1960s and '70s.

Frederick Sommer Photographs is the first exhibition of Sommer’s work in Philadelphia since 1968 and is drawn from loans from distinguished private collections. Organized by Peter Barberie, Curator of Photographs, along with Julia Dolan, The Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography, it will be on view in the Alfred Stieglitz Center Gallery.

"It is wonderful to be able to show this remarkable group of works,” Barberie said. “His photography represents a high point in American modernism and resonates powerfully with the many masterpieces of Surrealist painting, sculpture, and photography in our collection, as well as with our holdings of photographs by Edward Weston and other artists who were important to Sommer."

Born in Italy to Swiss and German parents, Sommer was raised in Brazil and studied landscape architecture at Cornell University from 1925-27. He settled with his wife Frances in Prescott, Arizona, and abandoned landscape design in the early 1930s, as he began to experiment with drawing, painting, and collage, as well as writing poetry and prose. Though he continued to incorporate other art forms into his pictures, by 1938 he had dedicated himself to photography as his primary creative medium, attracted to its capacity for providing abundant visual information. He was further inspired by encounters with the photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston.

His early imagery of animal remains and desert landscapes in Arizona caught the attention of Surrealist artists and writers such as Max Ernst and André Breton. For his part Sommer was attracted to the Surrealists’ use of surprising subject matter and odd juxtapositions, as well as their emphasis on chance as a vital element of the creative process. Sommer’s oeuvre included a great variety of subjects, as well as frequent art historical references. He had a keen interest in the interconnectedness of things natural and manmade, as reflected in his work. As he wrote in 1970: “Images have sources and antecedents. To turn away from them is to have no image to breathe life into.”

Related Events

In conjunction with the exhibition the Museum will host “Photography Conversation: The Art of Frederick Sommer” on Sunday, November 8 at 2:00 p.m. in the Van Pelt Auditorium. Curator Peter Barberie will discuss Sommer’s work and life be joined by Sheryl Conkelton, Director of the Art Gallery at Temple University and editor of the 1995 book Frederick Sommer: Selected Texts and Bibliography, as well as noted photographers Emmet Gowin and Douglas Mellor, both of whom visited Sommer frequently at his home in Prescott, Arizona. Tickets are $20 ($16 members; $14 students) and include Museum admission. Tickets available online at: or at 215-235-SHOW. This event is free for art and art history students from select area schools.

Also on View

On view through January 31, 2010 in the Julien Levy Gallery at the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building, Common Ground: Eight Philadelphia Photographers in the 1960s and 1970s examines a critical period for the art of photography and for the Philadelphia art scene. The exhibition shares several points of intersection with Frederick Sommer Photographs. Many of the artists in Common Ground were influenced by Sommer’s work: Sol Mednick, Ray K. Metzker, and David Lebe worked closely with Sommer's photographs during the installation of his 1968 solo exhibition at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), while Emmet Gowin cultivated a personal relationship with Sommer.

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