Topic: Fred Sommer day 2 (2 posts)

Fred Sommer: Addendum

I saw Fred Sommer several times after having three days with him in his home in Prescott, Arizona in 1979 and so, while that story has ended, there is more to tell.

In 1984, I was an assistant professor running the Photo Program at Northeastern University.  One of the things I was tasked with was to curate a photography show once a year for the university's gallery. That summer I flew to Phoenix in August, rented a car and drove to Tucson to meet with the artist Todd Walker (a wonderful artist and someone for me to write about at another time) to choose work for the one-man show he was to have the following winter in Boston at Northeastern's gallery. Job done, I headed north to see Fred in Prescott.

I was just there a day and it was a different kind of day than what I'd had with Fred five years before. There was a new assistant and it was not necessary for Fred to expend as much effort on orienting me into the ways of his thinking. What had also changed was that I was now working in 8 x 10. He was very interested in this and asked me to bring out my equipment and set it up. He also asked if I had prints. I had not begun to enlarge the big negatives yet but had a box of contact prints made on 11 x 14 paper I showed him. I remember this very clearly: he looked carefully at the 20 or so prints I had, asked a few questions about location, film type and exposure and then asked how long I'd been working in the format. I replied about a year and a half. Had I just started I would not have shown him prints that day but I felt I'd been working long enough to master this very difficult tool. Fred looked at me and said that he thought I had made a good start and with a couple more years of hard work I should be able to make real work with it. Pow! A blow to my everything: my ego, my self confidence, to my innate abilities.  As it turned out, he was right. It took me that long to master all that was 8 x 10. 

That visit also had us discussing how to agitate film in the tray (or tank) while processing to insure even development. I had worked out a system a few years earlier that constantly agitated the film the whole time it was in the developer solution. Fred was very excited by this and wanted to know every detail of how this was done. I told him then he jumped up and rushed into his darkroom behind the studio where I sat. The assistant and I sat there having no idea what Fred was up to. We heard him talking to himself in there and he was clearly rummaging around to find something as there was noise of clanking, things being moved, something being dropped and then we heard "aha!" and Fred came out with a cylindrical object, flat on top, about 8 inches across with an electrical chord sticking out of it. He put it down on the table next me with real glee in his eyes. I looked over at it and on the side it said that it was a "Dental Agitator". Clearly, at some point, Fred had been thinking about agitation too.

It looked something like this:

Sidebar here and necessary to tell you before I proceed: he had put it next to a glass display case that held incredibly valuable things he had found over the years out in the dessert. These were all the objects that he made his still lifes out of over his whole career.  I had no idea what was about to happen but Fred plugged it in and then said, "watch this" and flicked the switch on the device. All hell broke loose. Not only was the dental agitator doing its thing, shaking itself sideways and up and down like something possessed, the glass display case next to it was literally bouncing across the table, its contents vibrating as if in an earthquake, which in fact it was, at least on that table that day. Horrified, I jumped up and scrambled to turn the damn thing off. The assistant too had jumped up to save these priceless objects, clattering around inside the glass case. I turned it off  and all the objects in the case were now scattered around and lying on top of each other.  I looked at Fred only to find he was laughing his head off! He'd had us on, this was a big practical joke by this master 20th century artist and we were his victims. Ha ha I thought. Some joke. 

So, I am about to close out our time with this major photographer, a man whose prints were revered and now command very high prices at auctions, who photographed horizonless dessert landscapes, chicken parts, an amputated foot, dead coyotes, nude models out of focus and drew musical scores for their aesthetic purity. But one last story. This one is about the last time I saw him one evening at Yale University in New Haven where he was in residence for a few weeks when Chip Benson was head of the Department in 1997. Fred died in 1999.

The word had gone out that Fred was going to speak. I drove down from Boston to New Haven that afternoon and  I met a couple of my students there that night. They were the only two I'd convinced to go.

The lecture hall had tiered seating and was quite dark when we arrived. On stage was a chair, a side table with a glass and a pitcher on it and nothing else. While there were people in the audience there were empty seats too.  I don't remember any introductions. Fred appeared, walked across the stage and sat down in the chair facing us. After a moment of silence he said who he was and that he thought it might be good if we had a "conversation" instead of the standard lecture format of these things. And then he waited. Eventually someone got up and asked him a question, which he answered. On it went like that for maybe 45 minutes until there were no further questions. Fred had been clear and lucid, articulating his thoughts with characteristic precision, comfortable in his belief in his theories. Fred thanked us in the audience for coming, we clapped and proceeded to exit the hall. I never saw Fred Sommer again.

Topics: Fred Sommer,Fred Sommer day 2,Fed Sommer Day 3

Permalink | Posted February 15, 2014

Fred Sommer Day 3

This post continues and finishes a series of posts on three days I spent with the artist Fred Sommer in 1979 in Prescott, Arizona. To start on Day 1 go here: Day 1.

Day 2 is: here

I arrived at Fred's door right on time on this third day of my visit. We sat down to breakfast just as we had the two days previously, then we moved to the studio and took our normal positions, Fred, the assistant and myself. Fred asked if there was anything he needed to review from our previous two days of work. I used this time to ask a few questions, which Fred disposed of quickly and efficiently but with extreme respect and courtesy as well.

This was different, I got a definite sense that things were drawing to a close and that there was much to do and it wasn't going to get done with me hanging around. This man had spent two full days with me and put everything he did on hold for me. I said how very grateful I was and told him I would soon be on my way but did he mind telling me how he worked. He smiled as though the question was predictable but was warranted as well. He told me he made twelve photographs a year, with each one worked on for one month. In terms of the 8 x 10 work which included the landscape work and some of the still lifes shot in the studio where we were sitting, he and his assistant would make many prints, trying out different approaches and systems to get what he wanted from the negative. This included toners such as gold and selenium but also a method of acetate masking using color retouching dyes to selectively hold back tonalities so as to deemphasize some areas and accentuate others. He asked the assistant to bring out some prints of what they were working on then and he showed me how this system worked. I would later use this same system, although I was enlarging my 8 x 10 negatives and he was not.

Once we'd covered that topic it was clear it was time for me to go. I felt at a loss of words as so how to thank him. I rushed out to the car and got the Keith Jarrett cassettes and handed them to him. He thanked me and in saying my good byes to Frances, the assistant and to Fred, I became overwhelmed and was trying to hold back tears. I hugged Fred. This seemed to take him aback for a moment, then he relaxed and said that I was welcome. He wished me a safe journey home. 

I got in the car, started it up and drove away with a wave. I remember I drove down to Prescott, which was smaller in those days and then as far as something called Granite Dells, which are wonderful rock formations to the east of town. There I pulled over and burst into tears, sobbing at the end of these three days of an intensely transforming experience and at the generosity of this man who had given me so much. 

Once I pulled myself together and got back on the road the next thing I knew I was in Washington, DC, red eyed, burnt out and exhausted after driving 2300 miles straight. My head was so full I thought it would break as I drove across the country in my aging yellow sports car with little heat. I crashed at a friend's apartment that night and slept for a very long time. 

Art is the oldest and richest inventory of man's perception and comprehension of nature. It is the poetic image of what man has felt the universe to be and how he gradually became friends with different layers of materials and different layers of situations.

Frederick Sommer
Art and Aesthetics, 1982

Part of the dessert landscape series, photograph by Frederick Sommer

No doubt, if you have read all three of these posts you feel cheated. I have described in detail the logistics and framework of my days with Fred Sommer but none of the substance.  Were I to do so, it would do Fred's words an injustice and deprive you of working through what he said and meant on your own. Much of what Fred spoke about to me is published, as he was generous with his thoughts and perceptions. I urge you to read what he wrote. 

Next up: Fred Sommer Addendum  as there are a couple more stories about hanging out with Fred that need telling.

Topics: Fred Sommer,Fred Sommer day 2

Permalink | Posted February 14, 2014