Journal of Surrealism and the Americas, Vol 2, No 2 (2008)

‘As if one’s eyelids had been cut away’: Frederick Sommer’s Arizona Landscapes

Ian Walker

Abstract


In New York in 1944, the Surrealist magazine VVV published two photographs of the Arizona desert by Frederick Sommer. They are radical images in their minimalism and intensity of attention to (apparently) very little.

Sommer’s immediate connection was with Max Ernst, who saw these pictures when he visited Arizona in 1943. Later, when Ernst came to live at Sedona, the two men influenced each other’s work. Yves Tanguy also visited in 1951 and J. T. Soby suggested that the ‘breathless congestion of boulders, pebbles and bones’ in Tanguy’s last paintings derive from his experience of the desert as viewed through Sommer’s photographs.

Even in Europe, where Surrealism was predominantly urban, there had been an interest in the extreme landscapes of desert or jungle. But while Salvador Dali transformed rock forms into bodies, the challenge of the desert as Sommer depicted it was that no such transformation was possible. In addition, there was a Surrealist fascination with the "terrain vague"—land which is formless, void of composition—and it would be intriguing to extend the idea to Sommer’s desert pictures, which equally irritate the eye with their apparent lack of organization and focus.

It was Sommer’s meeting with Edward Weston that led to his use of a 10 x 8” camera to create the intensity of these pictures. But Sommer’s sense of the violence of the desert was at odds with the positive way it was depicted by Weston or Ansel Adams and his work was written out of photographic history for a long time. It’s no accident that it was rediscovered in the 1970s, when the myth of the American West was subjected to a severe critique and it’s intriguing to also place Sommer’s photographs in a lineage that goes back to Timothy O’Sullivan and forward to Richard Misrach.

Sommer’s work stands then at the intersection between the photography of the American West and Surrealism - between Edward Weston and Max Ernst. But it is also quite unlike either and, in their unflinching gaze at a subject that is both intense and empty, Sommer’s Arizona Landscapes profoundly undermine the conventions of vision.

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