I first met Fred, he insisted that I call him Fred. I was eighteen,
and he was the first adult who had ever said that to me. Although
his art and speech were compelling and demanding, giving to him
a patina of formality and awesomeness, as a person, he was Fred.
I am keenly aware that by calling him by his first name I might
seem pretentious or boastful, but I can’t imagine calling
1995-96, when Fred and I were working on transcribing, editing and
organizing what became eight little booklets, of which he was very
proud--giving away sets almost as fast as I could get them together--he
said that this should be his official biography. It lists the things
that he was most proud, but a lot more could be said about him and
obscure, reclusive, arrogant, and hard to get along with,"
that was how Fred said the outside world viewed him, back in the
1960s.* Perhaps simply for living in the hills around Prescott,
Arizona, and not New York or Los Angeles. Perhaps because throughout
his life, it was his curiosity that seemed to guide him more than
the marketplace. He was none of that, although he had his moments,
which were mostly over art. He would get angry when he saw an image
that missed being good, and when it seemed to him that the artist
had the skill and sense to have gotten there but just didn't. If
he was difficult and arrogant it was usually over his own work.
He was a ruthless editor, and often tore up prints that, although
they had gotten as far as being trimmed and dry mounted, he felt
were a little off.
often said that a good print is made outside the darkroom. He approached
the photographic print as a painter would a canvas. The nuances
of balance and what could be called eye leading, were his most singular
contributions to the craft of photography. Through spotting, to
add weight to very small areas with dyes, and reducing, to remove
weight from areas with bleach, he gave the photographer the means
to escape the tyranny of lens, film and paper. Dodging and burning
were strategic, reducing and spotting were tactical. Rather than
simply burning the edges of an image or making a pencil line border,
he demonstrated how a more painterly technique was possible.
most importantly, his vision was eclectic, best exemplified by his
skip reading and his musical scores. He loved to cook, and anyone
who had dinner with him will remember his meals and his excitement.
His senses seemed to mix, in a kind of synesthesia, where he could
compare a varying mix of black bean soup with stewed tomatoes to
de Beers formula (for producing varying degrees of hardness or softness
in a print); where the linkages between visual elements were like
the admixture of ingredients in a meal. And always the admonition
to do no less well than you can.
is not to "do the best that you can," rather it urges
you to reset the bar each time you do something and to exceed that
he was difficult.
you have questions, corrections, comments or stories about Fred,
please click here Sommer.
In 1968 I went to New York, and stopped in at the Museum of
Modern Art. Because Fred rarely had more than a few images
on hand in those days, and he said that MoMA had quite a few,
I called up to the photographic department to ask if I could
see what they had of his. After washing my hands, and filling
out forms, a man asked me how I knew Frederick Sommer. I explained
about that I knew Fred from Prescott College, and that I played
his music. This man shook his head saying how odd this was
because "Sommer is difficult, obscure, reclusive, arrogant,
and hard to get along with." I laughed, assuming that
Fred had set me up. Fred denied having tipped anyone off.
Some time later, at Fred's and I was introduced to this man
from MoMA, the curator of the Department of Photography. I
asked about what I still thought might have been a joke, but
no, he hadn't spoken with Fred at all.