Frederick Sommer: Clarity of Thought

By April Rapier

The set of art and writings by Frederick Sommer is the first book to be published by the Center for Creative Photography, and is the prototype of a concept devoted to “an artist’s integral participation in the content and design” (quoting CCP director James Enyeart’s preface). The volume entitled Sommer: Images is a comprehensive retrospective of a lifetime of searching through the nature of creativity in a manner as intellectual as visual. The volume entitled Sommer: Words condenses years of that process, so dear and imperative to Sommer’s philosophy, of verbalizing imagery.

He is not unique in this, as discussing one’s art has become an absolute in most cities; it is inexcusable to Sommer, however, to avoid or be unable to honestly and completely understand and convey the resulting insights. This premise assumes an enormous and absolute commitment, easily accessible in the photographs. The writings are extremely personal, at times poetically structured ramblings, and –– because if this ­–– mostly unintelligible. Yet, in conjunction with the photographs, glimpses of ideas strike home with familiarity. It is not easy reading, however. As an educator, his dogmatism is benevolent. His writings make it clear that definitions are comfortably unrestricted. The pictures are an altogether different matter. The relentlessness with which he pursued his sensibilities doesn’t seem to be well-represented in this collection. The groupings (for example, the Cut Paper series) are a bit repetitive. In accordance with the book’s concept, Sommer selected the representative images, but the selection as a whole seems circular rather than linear, a bit exclusive of some logical discoveries and steps. It all fits together perfectly, perhaps too perfectly.

Intellect and intent aside, the photographers are magnificent. They have the force of being understood as they were created, and project a cohesiveness that cannot escape notice. The images, made from 1939-1981, do not try to exclude the trends that formed his passage through the art world. Many of the photographs are identifiable as belonging to a collective consciousness of the formative years of photography as art. The objective notion that sets them apart lies in their undisguised tribute to clarity of thought; they are vulnerable and triumphant, their beauty unapologetic.