I saw Fred Sommer several times after having three days with him in his home in Prescott, Arizona in 1979 and so, while that story has ended, there is more to tell.
In 1984, I was an assistant professor running the Photo Program at Northeastern University. One of the things I was tasked with was to curate a photography show once a year for the university's gallery. That summer I flew to Phoenix in August, rented a car and drove to Tucson to meet with the artist Todd Walker (a wonderful artist and someone for me to write about at another time) to choose work for the one-man show he was to have the following winter in Boston at Northeastern's gallery. Job done, I headed north to see Fred in Prescott.
I was just there a day and it was a different kind of day than what I'd had with Fred five years before. There was a new assistant and it was not necessary for Fred to expend as much effort on orienting me into the ways of his thinking. What had also changed was that I was now working in 8 x 10. He was very interested in this and asked me to bring out my equipment and set it up. He also asked if I had prints. I had not begun to enlarge the big negatives yet but had a box of contact prints made on 11 x 14 paper I showed him. I remember this very clearly: he looked carefully at the 20 or so prints I had, asked a few questions about location, film type and exposure and then asked how long I'd been working in the format. I replied about a year and a half. Had I just started I would not have shown him prints that day but I felt I'd been working long enough to master this very difficult tool. Fred looked at me and said that he thought I had made a good start and with a couple more years of hard work I should be able to make real work with it. Pow! A blow to my everything: my ego, my self confidence, to my innate abilities. As it turned out, he was right. It took me that long to master all that was 8 x 10.
That visit also had us discussing how to agitate film in the tray (or tank) while processing to insure even development. I had worked out a system a few years earlier that constantly agitated the film the whole time it was in the developer solution. Fred was very excited by this and wanted to know every detail of how this was done. I told him then he jumped up and rushed into his darkroom behind the studio where I sat. The assistant and I sat there having no idea what Fred was up to. We heard him talking to himself in there and he was clearly rummaging around to find something as there was noise of clanking, things being moved, something being dropped and then we heard "aha!" and Fred came out with a cylindrical object, flat on top, about 8 inches across with an electrical chord sticking out of it. He put it down on the table next me with real glee in his eyes. I looked over at it and on the side it said that it was a "Dental Agitator". Clearly, at some point, Fred had been thinking about agitation too.
It looked something like this:
Sidebar here and necessary to tell you before I proceed: he had put it next to a glass display case that held incredibly valuable things he had found over the years out in the dessert. These were all the objects that he made his still lifes out of over his whole career. I had no idea what was about to happen but Fred plugged it in and then said, "watch this" and flicked the switch on the device. All hell broke loose. Not only was the dental agitator doing its thing, shaking itself sideways and up and down like something possessed, the glass display case next to it was literally bouncing across the table, its contents vibrating as if in an earthquake, which in fact it was, at least on that table that day. Horrified, I jumped up and scrambled to turn the damn thing off. The assistant too had jumped up to save these priceless objects, clattering around inside the glass case. I turned it off and all the objects in the case were now scattered around and lying on top of each other. I looked at Fred only to find he was laughing his head off! He'd had us on, this was a big practical joke by this master 20th century artist and we were his victims. Ha ha I thought. Some joke.
So, I am about to close out our time with this major photographer, a man whose prints were revered and now command very high prices at auctions, who photographed horizonless dessert landscapes, chicken parts, an amputated foot, dead coyotes, nude models out of focus and drew musical scores for their aesthetic purity. But one last story. This one is about the last time I saw him one evening at Yale University in New Haven where he was in residence for a few weeks when Chip Benson was head of the Department in 1997. Fred died in 1999.
The word had gone out that Fred was going to speak. I drove down from Boston to New Haven that afternoon and I met a couple of my students there that night. They were the only two I'd convinced to go.
The lecture hall had tiered seating and was quite dark when we arrived. On stage was a chair, a side table with a glass and a pitcher on it and nothing else. While there were people in the audience there were empty seats too. I don't remember any introductions. Fred appeared, walked across the stage and sat down in the chair facing us. After a moment of silence he said who he was and that he thought it might be good if we had a "conversation" instead of the standard lecture format of these things. And then he waited. Eventually someone got up and asked him a question, which he answered. On it went like that for maybe 45 minutes until there were no further questions. Fred had been clear and lucid, articulating his thoughts with characteristic precision, comfortable in his belief in his theories. Fred thanked us in the audience for coming, we clapped and proceeded to exit the hall. I never saw Fred Sommer again.