A master of powerful illusion

Art: Frederick Sommer embraced the idea that a photograph could be surreal rather than an objective record.

Fine Arts

April 13, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

(This is Glenn McNatt's first column as The Sun's new art critic)

There's a story that famed photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson once was asked to exhibit his pictures in a show of surrealist art.

Bresson's philosophy of "the decisive moment" -- the exact instant in which the formal elements of a picture come together to form a pleasing visual harmony -- made him a prime candidate for such a show. Still, the photographer politely declined.

Apparently, Bresson thought the label surrealism (literally "more real than real") -- which was then associated with the artistic avant-garde -- might ruin his livelihood. After all, the newspaper and magazine editors who bought his pictures did so because they believed them to be objective records of real events.

This is the paradox of photography: while it seems a purely objective process, the image formed by camera and lens is in fact the most subjective of all. A photograph records the world in terms of a single instant frozen in time, snatched from all other possible instants and points of view. It represents a reality that is not only physically impossible but ultimately totally arbitrary. And yet, because it's the result of a mechanical process, photography possesses a unique power to compel belief in the truth of what is represented.

Frederick Sommer (1905-1999) was one of the few photographers of his generation to embrace the idea that a photograph, far from being an objective record, is in fact a supremely powerful illusion whose essence is "surreal" almost by definition.

The exhibition of Sommer's photographs, drawings and collages currently at the Baltimore Museum of Art (through June 20) illustrates how Sommer used that insight to explore the possibilities of a radically new visual aesthetic.

The photographs span the most active period of the artist's career, during which he developed an increasingly personal and original vision using the basic tools of photography.

Born in Italy to German and Swiss parents, Sommer lived in Europe and South America before settling in the United States in the 1930s.

In the 1940s he came into contact with the circle of Surrealist artists exiled in the United States during World War II, which included Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and Man Ray.

Surrealism as a movement had grown out of the profound disillusionment that followed the horrors of World War I. Influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, its practitioners emphasized the irrational and unconscious aspects of human existence.

The surrealists attached great importance to accident and chance in the creative process. They delighted in illogical juxtapositions and the enigmatic imagery of dreams. They also explored the aesthetic of found objects and the idea of "ready made" artwork pioneered by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists.

All these various elements emerged in the photographs Sommer began making during the 1940s in Arizona, where he had settled for health reasons.

His first pictures were at once brutally realistic and phantasmagoric: The severed leg and foot of a hobo injured by a passing train, for example, or the decomposing carcass of a coyote among the desert dunes. But Sommer soon learned to make haunting images that did not depend on shock value. His portrait of "Livia," a neighbor's child, for example, possesses the unsettling aura of a dream -- or a nightmare.

During this period, Sommer also began experimenting with collages assembled from random objects and images he collected and then juxtaposed in odd combinations. His collages are miniature dramas in which the most commonplace items are transformed without warning into objects of menace or desire.

Sommer was a meticulous craftsman and darkroom technician whose prints rivaled in brilliance those of his great contemporary, Edward Weston.

But where Weston used "natural" objects -- landscape, still life and the nude -- to express various states of consciousness, Sommer realized that "unnatural," constructed images could serve the same function. His collages served as fodder for a continuing experiment aimed at expanding photography's visual vocabulary.

As his artistry matured, Sommer experimented with many innovative techniques, including double exposures, solarized prints and even hand-drawn negatives. He managed to bend photography, the most rational of media, to express a personal, highly idiosyncratic view of reality that was basically irrational, arbitrary and mythical.

There is a profound poetry in Sommer's images, along with a deep sense of mystery and sadness. Like any truly original artist, his oeuvre marks the triumph of a great eye that transcended the movement with which he is identified.

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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