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Dance of light
Frederick Sommerís singular views

How appropriate that an exhibition of Frederick Sommerís work is being shown in conjunction with a dance event. As is apparent in the RISD Museum gallery, the photographer was not so much interested in photography as in the aesthetics and dynamics of visual experience itself, the dance of light.

"Consent to Gravity: Frederick Sommerís Photographs and Musical Scores" will be on display through May 22, and the dance performance by Island Moving Co., also titled Consent to Gravity, will take place on March 19 and 20.

Three of the 14 black-and-white photographs selected are lyrical studies of the human form, though they are sedate rather than capturing movement. As was his experimental practice, Sommerís nude figures were rendered extremely out of focus ó in the darkroom rather than in the camera ó reducing shapes to muted flows of light and dark tones. In the exhibition, a photograph of a marble statue is somewhat less blurred than one of a standing female nude across from it, but the image is no less lyrical. The sweep of draped folds and crooked leg were captured when he swept the camera downward as he took the picture.

The most striking such figure study is an untitled male nude, taken in the early 1960s, as were the aforementioned works. The face is obscured, making prominent the bent arms curving toward each other. The total effect is that of a Cubist collage with its edges softened. Sommer has combined the figure with swirls of paper he cut with graceful flourishes, arranging a composition of light and shadow with the figure and re-photographing the combination.

Looking like a torso but not even made with a camera is "Paracelsus" (1959). The "synthetic negative," as he termed it, was created by manipulating translucent oil paint between two sheets of cellophane. The resulting abstract image has a ragged voluptuousness and velvety metallic sheen.

Clever artist, Sommer. For him, artful ends justified any photographic means. Two compelling abstracts in the show employ smoke-soot and cellophane. To Sommer, a photograph was a tool for inviting our attention into an experience rather than just a view of an image. Born in 1905 and dying at the brink of this century, he taught photography briefly at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1973, when seminal photographers Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan were teaching there. Sommer first used a camera while doing landscape design work in the 1920s in Brazil, where he was raised. Settling in Arizona in the early 1930s, he subsequently made many landscapes photographs.

His "Arizona Landscape" (1943) demonstrates how unconventional Sommerís eye was. Shot without incorporating a horizon for perspective or recognizable objects for scale, the scrub terrain is reduced to painterly pattern. Surrealists such as Max Ernst, a friend of the photographer, appreciated his far-odder subject matter. During the carnage of wartime in 1939, Sommer famously photographed an amputated leg and arranged parts of butchered chickens into still lifes. At RISD, "Jack Rabbit" (1939) depicts an almost fully decomposed carcass on gravelly ground, road kill that looks captured mid-sprint.

As well as making photographs, Sommer wrote poetry, drew, and painted. His first exhibition, in 1934, was of his watercolors. While he was not a musician and could not read music, he admired scores as visually pleasing ó to the point that he could sometimes recognize composers by their notations. The RISD exhibition has four examples of drawings by Sommers that convey this fascination. "Score 8," for example, simply has three staves of gestural black dashes that can be recognized as music but can also remind us of action painting, in their brisk sense of movement.

Sommer himself saw a connection between visual art and movement, as the exhibition quotes him expressing: "In dance, as well as in paintings, drawings or musical scores, empathy is given to the gravity-related distribution of leverages across the visual field. A dancerís elegant articulation of structure is a display of inventive consent to gravity which mirrors our own need to honor gravity on all occasions."

Newport-based Island Moving Co. will perform Consent to Gravity, choreographed by Daniel McCusker and Carol Somers, at the RISD Auditorium on March 19 at 8 p.m. and on March 20 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 (general admission, $15 for seniors and children, and $10 for RISD students).

In May the exhibition and dance performance will travel on to Los Angeles and the Getty Museum, which is also holding a Sommer exhibition on the centennial of his birth.

Issue Date: March 11 - 17, 2005
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