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Frederick Sommer
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Angri, Italy
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
From the Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation: 1905 Frederick Sommer (baptized Fritz Carlos Sommer) is born on September 7 in Angri, Italy, a small town near Pompeii. 1913 His family moves to Brazil. 1921 Through his father’s contacts, Frederick apprentices during the summer at Escritório Técnico Heitor de Mello, the office of architects Archimedes Memória and Francisco Cuchet, one of Rio’s finest architectural firms. 1922 Working with his father, Frederick begins taking private landscaping commissions. 1923 Frederick becomes increasingly more interested in avant-garde and modernist theories. 1924 Meets William Gratwick, Sr., an American businessman and amateur horticulturist, who encourages Frederick to visit the United States. 1925 Sommer travels to the United States, meets architect Edward Gorton Davis, Chairman of Landscape Architecture Department at Cornell University and becomes his assistant. 1926 Sommer officially enrolls as a graduate student at Cornell University. Sommer meets his future wife Frances Elisabeth Watson. 1927 Sommer receives a Master of Arts degree in Landscape Architecture. Sommer returns to Rio by himself to form a business partnership with his father. 1928 Sommer works on various projects as a consultant in and around Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, designing parks for Curitiba, in the State of Paraná, as well as Salvador, in the State of Bahia. Returns to the United States and marries Frances on August 23, after which the couple move to Rio de Janeiro. 1929 Sommer helps organize the IV Pan-American Congress of Architects in Rio as member of Thesis Commission. Time of Changes: 1930-1937 1930 On May 23, Sommer suffers a hemorrhage, is diagnosed with tuberculosis, and in two-weeks departs Rio for a rest cure in Arosa, Switzerland. 1931 He first experiments with photography for its own sake. The Sommers leave Arosa in April. Frances returns to the United States and Frederick follows a few months later. The Sommers arrive in Tucson, Arizona during November. 1932 Frederick pursues painting and drawing while Frances takes various odd jobs. They meet and become friends with Lucy Drake Marlow, Faurest and Winnie Davis, and Donald and Madge McKenzie. 1933 Sommer visits the World’s Fair in Chicago. Frederick has his first one-man exhibition (watercolors) in the United States at the Increase Robinson Gallery. There he sees the limited edition book, The Art of Edward Weston, which had been published by Merle Armitage the previous year. 1934 The Sommers move to Los Angeles for the fall semester, where Frances, hired to be a social worker by the State of Arizona, is training at the University of Southern California. In a music library, Frederick sees original musical scores drawn by the composers. Sommer shows Merle Armitage a selection of small drawings and paintings. 1935 In February Frances begins her job with the state of Arizona and the couple settles in Prescott. Frederick travels to New York to meet Alfred Stieglitz. 1936 In Prescott Frederick forms friendships with Charles Dockum and Charles Tracy. In Los Angeles he meets Edward Weston, Charis Wilson and Howard Putzel through Merle Armitage. 1937 Solo exhibition of watercolors, drawings and collages at Howard Putzel’s gallery. The 8x10 Work Begins: 1938-1945 1938 Sommer having acquired an 8x10 inch Century Universal view-camera starts making photographs of still life arrangements, of chicken heads and entrails, and details in nature. Later purchases a longer focal length lens for the 8x10 inch camera allowing him to photograph distant landscapes. In September they move into 913 Canyon Drive, which would be their home for the rest of their lives. 1939 Sommer becomes a naturalized citizen of the United States on November 18. 1940 The Sommers travel to New York. 1941 Faurest Davis first plays Sommer’s musical score drawings. The Sommers meet Man Ray, Max Ernst, and Peggy Guggenheim in California. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, selects Sommer’s Petrified Forest National Monument, AZ, 1941 as one of 100 prize-winning photographs included in the museum’s exhibition Image of Freedom. 1942 Frederick photographs the Grand Canyon, which he titles, “Colorado River Landscapes.” 1943 Max Ernst, now with Dorothea Tanning, visits the Sommers in Prescott. 1944 Dr. Lloyd Owen meets Frederick through mutual friends Hilliard and Mary Brooke in Prescott, Sommer has images published in VVV, visits New York and meets William Carlos Williams at Charles and Musya Sheeler’s home in Irvington. 1945 Photographs throughout Arizona with trips into Death Valley and Utah. The Found Object as Photograph Evolves: 1946-1949 1946 Frederick Sommer continues his interest in still life imagery by photographing arrangements of found objects and backgrounds. Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, move to Sedona, Arizona, and on weekends visit with the Sommers. Frederick builds a studio addition onto his home. Sommer’s first one-person exhibition of photographs is held at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California. The painter Lew Davis provides Charles Egan with an introduction to Sommer. Through Man Ray, Sommer meets James Fitzsimmons, who insists Steichen should see Sommer’s current photographs. 1949 In New York, Charles Egan holds an exhibition Drawings and Photographs by Frederick Sommer. Aaron Siskind visits Sommer at Egan’s suggestion and stays in Prescott for three months. Max Ernst introduces Sommer’s work to Dr. Dieter Wyss, who includes Sommer in his surrealist catalogue, Der Surrealismus (1950). Steichen exhibits sixteen of Sommer’s prints in the four-person exhibition Realism in Photography at MOMA and the museum purchases ten photographs for their collection. Period of Wider Exposure: 1950-1956 1950 Sommer’s photographs are included in the exhibition, Photography at Mid-Century, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, curated by Ebria Feinblatt. Max Ernst shows Sommer’s work to Christian Zervos, editor of the journal Cahiers d’art. 1951 Ansel Adams, teaching at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute) shows a selection of Sommer’s prints to his students and to fellow teacher Minor White. At Steichen’s suggestion, the photographer Ferenc Berko invites Sommer to participate in the first Photo Conference at the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, Colorado: “The Camera and Reality: A Photographic Seminar.” Sommer meets the painter Emerson Woelffer. 1952 Thirty-eight of Sommer’s photographs are shown in the exhibition, Diogenes with a Camera I, MOMA, New York. Sommer begins having success using a Leica rangefinder (35mm) he acquired in 1951. Richard Landis, a student at Arizona State College, meets Sommer, accompanied by Phillips Sanderson and Philip C. Curtis. Exhibits twenty photographs with Helen Levitt in Two Ways in Photography, at the Institute of Design, IIT, Chicago. 1953 Gerald Nordland meets Sommer in Prescott. 1955 Exhibition of Sommer’s photographs and drawings, organized by Dieter Weiss, at Zimmergalerie Franck in Frankfurt, Germany. 1956 Through Donald McKenzie, Sommer’s photographs are included in an exhibition at the German-American Library (Badische Volkszeitung) in Karlsruhe, Germany. Sommer builds another addition, initially designed to be a painting studio, onto his residence at 913 Canyon Drive. Aperture publishes a selection of Sommer’s photographs with accompanying critical commentary (Aperture 4:3 1956) Drawing as the first move to making a photograph and the Beginning of Synthetic Negatives: 1957-1965 1957 Sommer begins making synthetic or camera-less negatives. The first synthetic negatives are paint on cellophane (1957), followed by smoke on cellophane (1961) and smoke on glass (1962). Writer and publisher Jonathan Williams visits Sommer in Prescott and introduces Sommer’s work to photographer Wynn Bullock. Sommer takes a position as sabbatical replacement for Harry Callahan at the Institute of Design, 1957-58. He influences students Joseph Sterling, Joe Jachna, Charles Swedlund and Ray Metzker. Meets and becomes friends with Richard Nickel, an architectural historian/photographer and former student at the ID (MA graduate in 1957). Sommer’s work is the subject of a solo exhibition, Drawings, Paintings and Photographs, at the Institute of Design, IIT, Chicago. 1958 Sommer meets Edwin H. Land, inventor of the Polaroid process. 1959 Henry Holmes Smith includes Sommer’s photographs in an exhibition at Indiana University, Bloomington, Photographer’s Choice. 1960 Steichen includes Sommer’s photographs in the exhibition The Sense of Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, MOMA. Sommer travels in Europe for three months. 1961 Sommer begins to work with a model, Lee Nevin, in his Prescott studio. Jonathan Williams includes Sommer’s work, with that of Clarence John Laughlin and Wynn Bullock, in The Eyes of Three Phantasts, Aperture 9:3 (1961). Participates in a Tamarind printmaking workshop. 1962 The first cut-paper photographs are made. 1963 Aperture publishes the Sommer monograph issue (Vol. 10, No. 4, 1962 – distributed Feb. 1963). Sommer lectures and exhibits in Chicago, and is interviewed by Studs Terkel. 1964 David Kent meets Sommer. 1965 Frederick Sommer: An Exhibition of Photographs, is organized by Gerald Nordland for the Washington Gallery of Modern Art, Washington, D.C., travels to the Pasadena Art Museum, California with a variation reassembled and shown at the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff.