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Frederick Sommer archive

Identifier: AG 28

Scope and Contents

The Frederick Sommer archive contains materials documenting Sommer’s life from his childhood in Brazil, to education at Cornell University, tuberculosis recuperation in Switzerland, long residence in Prescott, Arizona, and up to his death in 1999. Materials include personal papers, original artwork and photographic materials, correspondence, financial records, audio recordings, exhibition announcements, manuscripts, as well as lecture and teaching notes. Materials date from 1909 to 1999 with the bulk of the collection dating from the 1970s to 1990s. When received, Sommer’s personal papers were stored in a variety of boxes and folders, without discernable order beyond the simplest sorting of letters and negatives. Staff members have created artificial series to aggregate like materials for ease of research use and have compiled a number of indexes and tables to provide greater specificity in retrieval of relevant information.

The Sommer Archive is rich in personal letters written by other artists, photographers, gallery owners, curators, and publishers. In some cases, Sommer drafted his replies on an attached sheet or envelope, but he was not systematic about saving copies of the letters he wrote. His other writings, essays, and aphorisms were preserved with great care and the researcher will find many drafts and proofed pages.

Exhibitions of Sommer’s paintings, drawings, collected objects, and photographs are documented in the archive with an assortment of documents including installation views, checklists, and correspondence with curators. Sale of his photographs, including prices and names of buyers, is documented in the records of LIGHT Gallery and the Pace MacGill Gallery.

Sommer’s experimental approach to photography is demonstrated in the diversity of types of photographic materials including items constructed by Sommer specifically to be photographed. Anatomical atlases purchased by Sommer in the 1990s and carefully cut up to furnish materials for collages exist in the archive as well as the negatives made of the finished collages. The majority of negatives were not numbered or titled by the photographer. They have been sorted by size of negative and then arranged chronologically. Access to the fragile negatives will be granted at the discretion of the Archivist. Contact prints do not exist for every negative, but references to published images are provided whenever possible. Please scroll down and click on the linked "External Document" to view appendices.


  • Creation: 1909-1999

Language of Materials

Material in English German French Portuguese

Conditions Governing Access

Personal correspondence written within the past twenty-five years is protected by the Center’s privacy rule. It cannot be viewed unless permission is received from both the writer and the Sommer Foundation.

Access to this collection requires an appointment with the Volkerding Study Center.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyrights to both Frederick Sommer’s art works and his writings are held by The Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation. For permission to reproduce or quote, contact: P. O. Box 262, Prescott, AZ 86302.

It is the responsibility of the user to obtain permission from the copyright owner (which could be the institution, the creator of the record, the author or his/her transferees, heirs, legates or literary executors) prior to any copyright-protected uses of the collection.

The user agrees to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the Arizona Board of Regents, the University of Arizona, Center of Creative Photography, including its officers, employees, and agents, from and against all claims made relating to copyright or other intellectual property infringement

Biographical Note

Frederick Sommer (1905–1999) was an intellectual and artist before he went on to become one of the great photographers of the modern era. Born in Angri, Italy, he grew up in Brazil, where his father designed gardens. In the 1920s, Sommer studied landscape architecture at Cornell University, where he met and soon after married Frances Watson, a graduate student studying education. Upon returning to Brazil, Sommer was diagnosed with tuberculosis and in 1930 he and Frances traveled to Switzerland for treatment. By that time, Sommer was developing a sophisticated appreciation of modern art and was already accomplished in drawing and painting. His photography pursuits would become part of a broader interest in the arts that also included music, writing, found sculpture, and collage.

Sommer’s career as a photographer unfolded largely in Arizona. The Sommers moved to Tucson in 1931, and then to Prescott, which would be their home for the rest of their lives. He had his first one-man exhibition of watercolors in 1933, the same year he first saw the work of Edward Weston, which piqued his interest in photography. After visiting Alfred Stieglitz in New York in 1935 and then meeting Edward Weston in California, the young artist fully embraced the creative possibilities of the camera, and he began crafting a body of work unparalleled in the history of the medium for its diverse and experimental qualities. He found the Arizona landscape imbued with a surreal quality that resonated with his unique aesthetic sensibilities: a formal elegance and a cool exactitude coupled with a penchant for emotionally charged—and sometimes even shocking or macabre—subject matter. Sommer’s work also possesses a technical mastery that has contributed to his status as a legendary photographer.

Sommer was not well known throughout his career largely because the popular view of what photography ought to be about and look like centered on the familiar documentary image or the aesthetically pleasing landscape, neither of which interested him. He resisted applying any single label to his numerous photographic experiments and styles, but said his work followed an “imaginative course.” In 1938 he began to compose and photograph still life arrangements—chicken heads and entrails, and other found objects in nature—with an 8x10 inch view camera. The addition of a longer focal length lens prompted him to photograph distant landscapes. Sommer’s surprising horizon-less views of the Arizona desert presented new ways of seeing and interpreting the landscape. He made Surrealist images from re-configured doll parts and in 1957 began making abstract camera-less negatives with materials such as paint on cellophane and then smoke on glass. He formed new images by appropriating, deconstructing, and re-configuring other artists’ works and scientific book illustrations long before the term “postmodernism” was coined.

The Center for Creative Photography acquired the Frederick Sommer Archive in 1975 as one of its five founding collections. It includes 88 fine prints, negatives, and his personal papers such as correspondence, manuscripts, and poetry. In addition, correspondence from Sommer is found in the Archives of Aaron Siskind and Edward Weston. The Frederick and Frances Sommer Foundation is located in Prescott, Arizona.


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Metadata Rights Declarations

  • License: This record is made available under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license.


Contains the personal papers, photographic materials, original artwork, audio recordings, and ephemera (1909-1999) of photographer, author, and lecturer Frederick Sommer (1905-1999).


The Collection is arranged into the following series:

Series 1: Biographical materials, n.d., 1909-1996, 2 boxes

Series 2: Correspondence, n.d., 1927-1999, 15 boxes

  1. Subseries 1: Alphabetical correspondence, n.d., 1927-1999, 12 boxes
  2. Subseries 2: Postcards, n.d., 2 boxes
  3. Subseries 3: Family correspondence, n.d., 1927-1999, 1 box

Series 3: Princeton seminars, n.d., 1979-1980, 2 boxes

Series 4: Teaching, lectures, and workshops, n.d., 1963-1987, 1 box

Series 5: Interviews with Sommer, n.d., 1972-1990, 1 box

Series 6: Skip-reading, n.d., part of a box

Series 7: Books and Sommer library, n.d., 1960s-1979, part of a box

Series 8: Music and record collection, 1991, part of a box

Series 9: Published writings about Sommer, n.d., 1952-1998, 1 box

Series 10: Portraits, n.d., 1 box

Series 11: Exhibitions, n.d., 1949-1999, 2 boxes

Series 12: Financial and banking records, n.d., 1952-1998, 3 boxes

Series 13: Writings by Sommer, n.d., 1970-1984, 3 boxes

Series 14: Publications, n.d., 1936-1991, 4 boxes

Series 15: Artifacts, n.d., 2 boxes

Series 16: Materials for collages, n.d., 1802-1922, 3 boxes and 6 volumes

Series 17: Other materials, n.d., 2 boxes

Series 18: Audiovisual materials, n.d., 1950-1987, 2 boxes

Series 19: Photographic materials, n.d., 1931-1991, 45 boxes + 34 cut paper originals

  1. Subseries 1: Negatives and objects made to be photographed, n.d.
  2. Subseries 2: Inscribed aluminum foil, n.d.
  3. Subseries 3: Objects made to be photographed and miscellaneous items, n.d., 1952
  4. Subseries 4: Cut paper originals, n.d., 1963-1979
  5. Subseries 5: Color slides, n.d.
  6. Subseries 6: Artifacts, n.d.
  7. Subseries 7: Non-photographic art, n.d.
  8. Subseries 8: Contact prints, n.d.
  9. Subseries 9: “Masking and print masking procedure", n.d.
  10. Subseries 10: Reproduction prints, bulk: n.d., 1939-1991
  11. Subseries 11: Contact prints and miscellaneous documentation, n.d., 1936-1939
  12. Subseries 12: Study prints, group 1, bulk: n.d., 1939-1949
  13. Subseries 13: Study prints, group 2, bulk: n.d., 1943-1972
  14. Subseries 14: Empty photographic paper boxes used by Sommer, n.d.

Series 20: Research notes complied by archivist (not described in finding aid), n.d., 1 box

Appendix A: Selected Index to Correspondence

Appendix B: Inventory of Audiovisual Materials

Appendix C: Inventory of Photographic Materials

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Materials in this collection were purchased from Frederick Sommer, with the initial acquisition in 1980. The bulk of the archive was acquired after the artist’s death with several additions in 2001 and 2002.

Related Materials

An oral history with Sommer was conducted at the Geroge Eastman house in 1976, a recording of that interview can be found at

Processing Information

Processing completed by Amy Rule in 2004. Boxes renumbered and relabeled and Finding Aid revised by James Uhrig in February 2011. Finding Aid revised by Alexis Peregoy in 2018. Finding aid was updated by Tai Huesgen in 2019.

Frederick Sommer archive 1909-1999
Finding aid created by CCP Archives Staff
© 2020
Description rules
Finding Aid Based On Dacs (Describing Archives: A Content Standard)
Language of description
Script of description
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Finding aid encoded in English

Repository Details

Part of the Center for Creative Photography Archives Repository

1030 N. Olive RD
Tucson Arizona 85721 United States