- FREDERICK SOMMER
- A Glory About to Be Revealed
In 1960 the Jargon Society used this image on the frontispiece of an edition of The Maximus Poems, by Charles Olson, published in conjunction with Corinth Books, New York City. It became a glyph for Olsons Figure of Outward (Robert Creeley), striding forth from the domain of the infinitely small. It also became a written character for Maximus Himself (Near/Far Mr. Olson)-- the Man in the Word. It is (really, like they say) the enlargement of a sliver of perforated tin ceiling found on the floor of a bar room in the ghost town of Jerome, Arizona. Frederick Sommer made the discovery and made the photograph.
The title is a fragment from a poem by Robert Browning. What follows is a musical, not a critical composition.
This talk is about Anything and Everything, in the sense of the riddle:
so what did the zen
monk say to the
hotdog vendor make me
one with everything
Finally, to say the last thing first. Frederick Sommer (the man, the artist) is all about finding. Finding things. Finding things out.
For whatever improbable reason, I always put Frederick Sommer right in there with some of baseballs oldtime major-league speed-merchants: Fireball Fred, he of the eagle-eye (the kind of eye that can gaze so dispassionately and intently at a cluster of flayed coyotes in the Arizona desert), a guy who throws smoke, as they say in the trade. And he not only throws it, he makes it adhere to greased cellophane and to glass and then he puts the results in the enlarger to produce extremely startling images. Ralph Branca, The Hawk, comes to mind. And Sal The Barber Maglie. Big Chief Allie Reynolds, who died this week. If Fred put on a hundred pounds hed be the spitting image of Dick Donovan, one powerful hurler. And he also brings to mind a pitcher or two-- who were not that fast-- who had bizzare, metamorphic names that make you never forget them: Early Wynn and Elroy Face. How can anyone be named Elroy Face?
Two of Frederick Sommers trump-card words are poetic and logic. I am poet always very nervous when I hear the word poetic. And I must be one of the most illogical persons alive. Think of hiding out in the Southern Appalachians, with a shingle hung out saying POET about halfway geographically between the lairs of Senator Helms and Congressman Gingrich-- and still daring to get out on the highway. Southerners seldom have minds and W.J. Cash wrote an excellent book, The Mind of the South, just to prove this point at considerable length. H.L. Mencken, raging against lintheads, cretins, and white-trash Anglo-Saxons & Celts, said there were more men of intelligence on two acres of any Northern European country than in all the territory stretching endlessly southwest from the Potomac River. He even quoted that noble Bard of the Congaree, South Carolinas Rev. J. Gordon Coogler:
Alas, for the South! Her books have grown fewer--
She was never much given to literature.
So, though you will perhaps starve to death during this talk from a lack of mentation, you will also be spared a surfeit of artspeak and bafflegab. Abstract thought snubbed me completely. I still remember in the first grade at Wesley Heights School in Washington, DC, the one word I couldnt understand was that, whether it was an adjective or a pronoun or an adverb or a conjunction. As Gertrude Stein might say, Cant you see that you cant see that and you cant hear that and you cant feel that and that makes it tough and that is that. And my training in philosophers is shallow. I tend to approach even the wondrous Heraclitus as Erik Satie might:
Variations on a Theme by an Old Ionian Physiologue
into the same river
no man steps 2147
times but whos counting
All this indicates that either I could spend all my time this evening quoting Frederick Sommer himself, whose collected adages and epigrams are both gnomic and unique, or I must go at it alone in my own peripatetic way, stumbling through the bushes.
But, to start, I will quote him, because this insight of his made a crucial impression on me when I first talked to him in Prescott nearly 40 years ago. It has remained central to what I do.
Much of what I say sounds like ordinary short phrases-- short precepts-- and thats what they are. The trick is in not having a great many of these things, or knowing why they are that way. Its a way of living, in which a lot of small things are combined. Its like a paving job. A lot of paving stones will make a fine job on the street even though the units are comparatively small. The idea is just not to leave too many gaps.
Ok. Now I want each of you to retreat smartly to deep left field, center field, right field. Get your glove ready. I am going to pick up my fungo bat and hit a few long taters out your way. Relax-- just play catch. These hits are not the ones normally associated with the highly civilized canon of F. Sommer. But, sweareth I, they all do cohere. There is something in his images that provokes these findings in myself. I keep coming back to certain Sommer images-- and I keep coming back to these shards. When we come to look at a few slides of the photographs, I hope the connections will become more clear. Since there is a total democracy of content in Sommer, you could even approach him across the Deadly Dessert from the viewpoint of the demotic. For instance:
... Anything goes!
But jeepers creepers, whered you get those peepers ...?
Just use whats lying around the house.
But, now shift the gear:
One loves only form.
To live is to defend a form.
Aesthetics is for the Artist like Ornithology is for the Birds.
William Carlos Williams:
I am that he whose brains are scattered endlessly.
But, I have heard all my life, that one makes many.
God help me!-- my name is nuance.
Need is so many bananas, need is a ham sandwich. But desire is insatiable and you cannot ever know what it is. It is renewed all the time.
R. Buckminster Fuller:
The poet is the guy who puts things together.
The poet, no less than the scientist, works on the assumption that inert and live things and relations hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature.
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough...
The poetic image, in its newness, opens a future to language.
Tibetan Lamaist saying:
Be present, be yourself. You are here. Objects are here. They are for you only, because you see them.
The things that we took for granted do not take us so.
Insects are so mechanical we dont consider they might include a few eccentrics.
If we had keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
You have eyes outside and eyes inside. Your heart is full of eyes. To communicate, you put the two together. Amen!
Every land you walked was you, and you were never alone.
What can be shown cannot be said.
Language is a deluge from one small corner of the heart... The shuttle has worked in my heart as it worked in the hearts of those who came before me... The stream we muddy soon runs itself clean again... It comes from rain like clouds...
Atget couldnt have cared less about seeing the sights. Not once, in almost forty years behind a camera, did he point it at the Eiffel Tower.
As for me, all I know is nothing.
Socrates told his students to know themselves. He couldnt guarantee that they had the equipment.
Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.
Most of the trouble on this planet is caused by people who must be right.
Ive tried my best to sell people on the idea that I can photograph anything that can be exposed to light.
The expectation of life before death is as remote as the expectation of life after death.
We have no art, say the Balinese; we do everything as well as possible.
Wisdom is the forgetting of all you have learned.
When I hear the word ethics I dont know what to do with my hands.
Have you ever tried to take the world in your arms? It resists being snuggled. Out all day setting fires under crotches that refuse to burn.
Bodies are all spiritual. All words are spiritual-- nothing is more spiritual than words.
Rainer Maria Rilke:
Read as few works of criticism or aesthetics as possible.
If youre walking to the moon, Ive got clean socks for you.
What a piece of bread looks like depends on whether you are hungry or not.
I am what I am because of what is around me.
You think as much with your big toe as with your brain, and probably more effectively.
I want you as my confidants, my friends, but I dont want you as my audience.
Dr. D.K. Whittaker:
In the animal kingdom at large, death is the inevitable sequel of loss of teeth.
Apollo is dull without Hobgoblin
Its nice to go somewhere else... Every country I go to-- theres Siskind.
If they give you lined paper, write the other way.
Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.
Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.
Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion; bewilderment is intuition.
Were like death-watch beetles, we start at one end and all we ever do is eat through to the other side.
How does anyone know anything?... I have a very optimistic nature. I have nothing to be optimistic about.
We find things, see things in passing which had nothing to do with us except that we saw them.
The artist is a receptacle for emotions, regardless of whether they spring from heaven, from earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing face, or from a spiders web. This is why he must not distinguish between things. Quartiers de noblesse do not exist among objects.
Being alive is peculiar, bizarre and unbelievable-- its magic. The planet doesnt even know we are here. You dont get to heaven because you had a miserable life. The rewards are here.
Hebrews , 13/2:
Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
One should try everything once, except incest and folk dancing.
Edgar Heap of Birds:
The brutality which is America raises mad dogs that were once beautiful children.
Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.
Never explain-- your reader is as smart as you.
Jacques-Henri Lartigue, 1901 (age seven):
Its marvellous, marvellous. Nothing will ever be as much fun. Im going to photograph everything, everything!
Literature: the way we ripen ourselves by conversation.
The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what he saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think. But thousands can think for one who can see. To see is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.
History has its own history, which is the history of attention.
Architecture is an ordering of light.
For a mountain is something high and blue within oneself.
Thomas A. Clark:
In the heat of noon we may come to a place where someone planted long ago an avenue of chestnut trees.
I dont like people who are tired before they are born-- who havent the strength or the curiosity for new, challenging experiences. They want their food pre-digested. These are the people for whom the simple, minimal, accessible music is being written. Well good for them... This music is not for listening. You hear it once and you have heard everything. Theres nothing to go back for.
It is good to know how not to know how much one is knowing.
Clarence John Laughlin
Everything, everything, no matter how commonplace and how ugly, has secret meanings. Everything.
The angels praising the Lord are never the same.
After living and dreaming comes what matters most: waking up.
Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. Its what Ive never seen before that I recognize.
People are wrong in supposing that I have intentions. I only create art. The artist will always be a special, isolated, solitary agent, with an innate sense for organizing matter.
You think that the worm is dancing, but its only the way it walks.
Of course I hope people will be strongly affected by my pictures. But the way they affect people has more to do with the beholder than the painter. I remember reading about someone who was frightened to death by looking at an egg.
I must confess it seems obvious to me (as it did to Leibnitz) that what is complex must be compounded of simples.
Henry David Thoreau:
We find only the world we look for.
Silence will save me from being wrong (and foolish), but it will also deprive me of the possibility of being right.
Leave the initiative to the words.
Thoughts that come with doves footsteps guide the world.
Nick Myushkin, in Bottom Liner Blues, by K.C. Constantine:
You wouldnt know bullshit from cowshit, mine or anybody elses, you wouldnt know chickenshit from ratshit. You know why? Cause you never looked at any of em, its all just shit to you. Youre like all the other goddamn sheep in the fuck-ing so-called mo-dern in-dus-tri-a-lized rep-re-sen-ta-tive de-fucking-moc-ra-cy.
I cherish what I have had of the temporal: I am no longer young but the wind & waters are.
Love is giving something you havent got to someone who doesnt exist.
I am looking for the kind of society where the human mind and the human heart are the most important elements-- not the elbow.
I can wish no traveller no better fortune than to stroll forth in the early evening with as large a reserve of ignorance as my own.
Michel de Montaigne:
I have made here only a nosegay of culled flowers, and have brought nothing of my own but the thread that ties them together.
Voila! Now, lets come back to home plate, refreshed and/or exhausted by this exercise in heavy hitting, sit on the grass, have a Pilsner Urquell, and imagine taking a look at six Sommer prints. (Words making the virtual reality for images.) I am always quite dumbfounded by them, always will be, but will try for a few insightful words.
Fred Sommer reports that the first two or three years of his photographic work were very intense in terms of chicken anatomy. In those days when you bought a chicken they didnt have it all prepared waiting for you, they had the whole chicken and the only thing that had been done was it had been plucked. Wed pick out a chicken and the butcher would put it on the block and cut off the head and legs and gut it and throw these parts into a large carton... This went on for months, maybe a year and a half, when one time we went in and every one of these chicken heads just started to look different. Believe it or not, every chicken head had unbelievable personality and emotion.
In 1939 Fred was looking exceedingly hard at chickens. I was ten years old and was looking exceedingly hard at Batman & Robin, The Wizard of Oz, and Fantasia, three viable escape routes from my Southern Baptist ancestors. Earlier in the 1930s I spent some of my school vacations near Cartersville, Georgia where out on the farm my great-grandmother, Georgia Tumlin, was a great adept at swooping down on a hen, wringing its neck, cutting off its head, and heading for the kitchen. It left me squeamish and wimpish to this day. Its all I can do to cut up a potato, not to speak of something with a face and an asshole.
Freds chicken asks us to stiffen the sinews, steady the nerves, and go gingerly on to a new place. Maybe this hooded deity is the real Wizard of Oz, not that funny man behind the curtain? It is certainly some vatic sibyl of immense dignity and great nobility, poised to answer very dark questions--Watchman, What of the Night? And it is also something quoted from art history. I hope I am not the only reckless viewer to think of Piero della Francescas portrait of the Duke of Urbino (1465), its elegance, rigidity of pose, and meticulousness of detail? And-- perhaps this is just a long shot-- the position of the sibylline chicken recalls too a painting by a later painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Jurist (1566). Below the cowled head, the chickens body is very much in the phantamagorical style of Arcimboldo. This is a sombre image of re-animation.
Max Ernst (1944)
I have been looking at this portrait for 40 years and it simply wont wear out. For one thing it is so precisely evocative of Freds surrealist friend over in Sedona, Arizona. And it has such curious space, the eyes inset in that hollow, horizontal band. Only a master printmaker, with the full panoply of tones, could make such an image. Sommer plays over the sensitized surface with silver salts like Sergei Rachmaninoff over his keyboard.
Maybe heres a good time to break in and ask ourselves, who else besides Fred Sommer offers us images of such depth and such singular quality-- particularly in these horrifyingly vacuous and dumbed-down days in the history of the republic? I am somewhat surprised at the names that come to my mind. For instance, the first is Ivan Albright. I am thinking of the ten-year application of paint (its texture and density) in That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do, the hallucinatory picture of the door in the Art Institute of Chicago, dating from 1941. It is painted within an inch of its life, à la Sommer. Albright said: I wanted to pick things that looked as if they had lived their lives. I wanted to give them another life. Jean Dubuffet saw the work in 1951 and was blown away. I am sure that never have paintings had such strong powers of revelation. They upset with one blow the ramparts of our tastes, our affectivity, our aversions. The hostile is manifest in them-- that which we felt before as hostile, and which despite that appears to us suddenly, endowed with a fascinating irresistible attraction. A crumbling, rotting, grinding world of excrescences is offered to us in place of the one in which we believed we lived... Abolished here totally are what were our canons of beauty...
Who else? The San Francisco painter, Jess, whose work is only now coming to public attention after 50 years on the job. A tremendous collagist, alchemist, and dreamer. The recent show at the Whitney Museum was a complete revelation.
Wed never finish if I brought in photographers, but I should at least name some of those with affinities and adumbrations: Clarence John Laughlin, Wynn Bullock, Minor White, Edmund Teske, Henry Holmes Smith, Aaron Siskind, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Emmet Gowin, Arthur Tress, Duane Michals, Joel-Peter Witkin, etc., etc.
Two composers: Anton Webern, for his principle of perpetual variation. ... Federico Mompou, the Catalan (1893-1987). His is a music of childhood, a musica callada, a music of silence. Persons have spoken of his modesty, ingenuity, innocence, freshness, purity; and, also, magic, obsession, obscurity and depth, making us forget our terrestrial weight for a few moments.
Among recent poets, Basil Bunting (1900-1985). There is something sidereal and feral about Bunting, as there is about Sommer. He said: I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing. Unabashed boys and girls may enjoy them. An amazing gravity he shares with Sommer. Consider the beginning of the great, long poem of his old age, Briggflatts:
Brag, sweet tenor bull,
descant on Rawtheys madrigal,
each pebble its part
for the fells late spring.
Dance tiptoe, bull,
black against may.
Ridiculous and lovely
chase hurdling shadows
morning into noon.
May on the bulls hide
and through the dale
furrows fill with may,
paving the slowworms way.
A mason times his mallet
to a larks twitter,
listening while the marble rests, lays his rule
at a letters edge,
till the stone spells a name
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the graves slot
he lies. We rot.
That great fastballer, Bob Gibson, of the Cardinals, once observed: Use what youve got, because thats all you get. If you wander the Arizona desert, this is something you get. But to make it palatable for those of us who dont there wander, Sommer constructs a composition tighter than Peter Paul Rubens. Remember what Olson said: ONE LOVES ONLY FORM! People used to ask Fred: Must you photograph that? I assume he said: Yes, please. He is kind enough not to photograph the leavings of the billion or so humans murdered by humans in our advanced, technological century. I think I should bring in some words written by Minor White for an Aperture monograph on Sommer published in 1962: The Sommer images which seem offensive or worse, hardly worth of the name art, actually shun that aspect of art called Opiate of an Elite. They function, if we let them, to open our eyes to Vision. Sages and Saints across all the skies of time nod approval of these images which disturb us and make us face our individual death, our ultimate terror. If we could face that terror every day of our lives, we might find the way to our ultimate salvation. (This image was used on the cover of Jargon 70.)
Untitled: Landscape (1944):
A pellucid mountain stream in the American West, but surely this isnt where Coors gets it water to brew with? Nope. Mr. Albright, and perhaps even Mr. Tchelitchew, have slurped a drink from this igneous miasma. A sentence from D.H. Lawrence springs to mind: In the Black Forest, the trees have no faces. Well, thats not true, thats wrong. The Germans are obsessed with things in the trees. They long forWaldeinsamkeit, forest loneliness. But, the faces remain, as they do in this water. No matter how long you put a Swiss/German photographer in the Arizona wilds, he will also register Eisenbach (Iron Creek) in the Black Forest. Freds been in Prescott, Arizona since 1935. I wonder if the other local luminary, Senator Barry Goldwater, has ever heard of him? Barry begins to seem like a firebrand leftist compared to the current Republican antediluvians-- lets hope that its Freds fault.
Untitled: Amputated Foot (1939)
Freds friendly family doctor knocked on the studio door one afternoon with this amazement under his arm, wrapped in newspaper, knowing of his predilections for Buffalo Chicken Wings, etc., the odd placenta, etc. Some unfortunate railroad worker had just lost part of his leg to a passing train. Usually the story would stop there, but not in Freds case. We start here but we get there. And where is there? Its that Gothic thing again. Lets go directly to Colmar in Alsace, the Musée Unterlinden, and spend an hour in front of Matthias Grünewalds Isenheimer Altar-- perhaps the greatest masterpiece of Northern European painting. A sickly green Christ, on the cross, covered in syphilitic chancres, and those damn things in the trees, coming out of the top of his foot. Unsparing indeed, but, squeamish as I am, I have been looking at this image for four decades and cant get enough of it. Would you rather turn the channel to Lawrence Welk? Joan Rivers advises: Grow up! Get real! Get a life! Remember to die!
Fighting Centaur (1952)
Well, another bit of the cosmos that has suffered a lot and was on the way to annihilation until Frederick Sommer saw something there that he thought he, and we, might need to see. When he sees it in the camera and then makes a print, the image is much more real than when you or I look at the drab components of the image in vague natural light-- the bit of melted lead, etc., and the top of a paint can. I really cant tell what the objects are. A piece on pipe stuck into something that says OAKLAND CAL U.S.P. Is it some kind of flare? Something to do with a mail bag on the railroad? Something to do with dynamite? Whatever, by placement and positioning he makes a completely new world and demands a completely new attention. He uses a title that turns part of the metal shape into the flank of a horse and the top of the piece into the head of an armored warrior. Ok. And whats going on? Id venture to say phallic aggression is going on-- bigtime phallic aggression. You know, like Senator Jesse Helms: Southern-Fried Baptist Phallic Aggression. Hate everybody on earth who didnt go to Sunday School this week in Ayden, North Carolina, Collard Greens Capital of the World. Other traditions might have things to teach us in this area, Hinduism, for one. Consider this passage I encountered recently in the Shiva Purana:
Anyone who goes through life without honoring the phallus is truly pitiful, guilty and damned. If one weighs up on the one hand phallus worship and on the other charity, fasting, pilgrimages, sacrifices and virtue, it is the worship of the phallus, the source of pleasure and liberation, offering protection against adversity, which is to be preferred... Anyone who venerates the phallus, knowing that is the prime cause, the source of consciousness, the Substance of the Universe, is closer to me than any other being.
Interesting advice for such a hostile and befuddled society as our own. The Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, utters the ineffable word masturbation in public and is quickly railroaded out of Washington, DC. Though some commentator in the New York Times was wry enough to observe that teaching teen-agers about masturbation is a howling example of bringing coals to Newcastle... Anybody knows that 95% of adolescent males masturbate-- and 5% are liars... Surely, this is the first generation in history to learn the lessons of love from lawyers, health professionals, and bureaucrats. You see how Frederick Sommer can get you going. A recent poem:
it seems certain to
me that newt gingrichs
mean little country peter
never gets soft and
all he uses it
for is to beat
alligators to death a
species particularly fond
of big government and
big equipment go newt
I see Frederick Sommer as one modern avatar of ancient Orpheus. In Robert Graves The Greek Myths, Orpheus is described as the son of the Thracian King Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope... the most famous poet and musician who ever lived. Apollo presented him with a lyre, and the Muses taught him its use, so that he not only enchanted wild beasts, but made the trees and rocks move from their places to follow the sound of his music. At Zone in Thrace a number of ancient mountain oaks are still standing in the pattern of one of his dances, just as he left them.
I give the Old Fireballer the last word, because it shares affinities with what I just read: I have five pebbles, not too different in size and weight, yet a randomness about them. If I drop them on the carpet they will scatter. Now we could run an experiment and we would find that we cannot put these pebbles in shapes that would be as elegant and as nicely related and with as great a variety as every time they fall. It is better than anything we could do. I have great respect for the way I find things. Every time something falls I look. I cannot believe the relationships. The intricacy. You hear a noise and you say What is that? Respect for the affirmation of the unexpected.
Finding things out.