Topic: Fred Sommer (7 posts) Page 1 of 2

The Marc Harrison Tent Story

Note: This one is a little out of date but never published.

I  have written extensively about the photographer Fred Sommer in this blog. If you haven't read those I've listed the links at the bottom of this post.

I got an email from Jim Stone a while ago. Jim is an old-time friend and colleague. We were grad students together in the 70s. He was checking up on me to see if I was still doing okay after open-heart surgery (I am) and asked about the details of Fred Sommer trading prints for tents with Marc Harrison.

Here's the story:

The Marc Harrison Tent Story

Marc Harrison was my brother-in-law and a professor of Industrial Design at RISD. He also was an excellent photographer. Marc was on a shooting trip to Mexico with Ron Binks, a film teacher at RISD. I believe Marc was shooting 4 x 5 and Ron, either 5 x 7 or 8 x 10. They were in a Land Rover and stopped by Prescott, AZ to see Fred (Ron knew him somehow). This was sometime in the 60s. They stayed and camped at Fred's in Marc’s prototype tents (think folding white foam core).

This was in the years Fred was doing a lot of hiking to photograph and camping in the desert. Fred liked Marc’s designs. They worked out a trade as Marc liked Fred's pictures. I don’t think it came down right then but later from RI. Marc sent out his tents and Fred sent 12 prints to Marc in payment.

Marc Harrison died tragically of ALS in 1998.

After Marc died Deedee my sister sold some prints off, to help pay for tuition for her daughters' schools. She was helped by Jan Howard, the photo curator at the RISD Museum, to facilitate the sales. I believe the Museum ended up with 2 to 4 Fred Sommer prints, gifted by my sister. 

As a side note: I’ve often wondered about how this worked. I think I know. Fred and his live-in assistant would figure out what image they were going to work on each month. Fred made 12 final prints a year. That meant printing one photograph for a month. Imagine. Some testing, some trial printing, some different toners, some masking, perhaps a different developer. A lot of the imagery that came from negatives was printed many many times, not to make as editions but in the pursuit of perfection. Let's be clear, Fred Sommer was known to be a master printer of unparalleled ability. Now, Fred Sommer prints fetch upwards of $50k to $60K per print.

So, the end result was that many very close-to-final prints were made. Of course, most would be destroyed. But a few very good ones would be kept. I believe this is what Marc got. Fred showed me some prints when I went out to see him in the late 70s and early 80s. The “seconds” were indistinguishable to my eyes from the finals.

Here are the links to my posts on Fred:

Let me know if you've enjoyed this further look into all things Fred Sommer. He and his work had a huge effect on this young and impressionable artist in the 70s and 80s. 

 Neal's email

Topics: Fred Sommer

Permalink | Posted February 6, 2022


Thanks to my friend and colleague Andrea Star Greitzer, I have a logo! Never had one of those before. We started with several designs. This was an earlier iteration but I felt the colors were wrong.

There are three things that are primary in my career and Andrea knows them probably better than anyone:

1. I am all photo all the time.

2. My earlier career spanned over 30 years working just in black and white. It wasn't until the early 2000's that I started working in color. 

3. I am a stickler for technical proficiency and high quality in my photography. We felt that it was appropriate to include an aperture, as a universal symbol for a technical characteristic of photography.

Here's the final one:

Why a logo? It helps to establish your "brand" as it identifies what you stand for and speaks to your aesthetic in a symbol. Think about the issue of "identification", trying to state with just one photograph what your work is all about. Impossible, right? But a logo, while seeming to put you in with large companies and corporations, gives a visual clue to what your work is about.

With thanks to Andrea!

BTW: I am sending this blog out today, November 25, 2016 on my 70th birthday. To celebrate this, many close friends and my family met in Orleans on Cape Cod last weekend for a get together and party that started Friday and lasted until Sunday. I thank all for coming and bringing wonderful food and drink. I especially thank Suzanne, longtime friend and former student, for loaning us her wonderful home in Orleans.

Topics: Darrow,Fred Sommer,Harry Callahan

Permalink | Posted November 25, 2016

Aaron and Fred

The blog is back, after a break of ten days or so to work on adding new series to the site. 

In the mid 70's I was a few years out of graduate school and living north of Boston in Manchester (sometimes referred to as Manchester-by-the-sea). I was married and struggling to find my way as some sort of wage earner and also creatively. I was working for a couple of architects photographing their designs and teaching a few evenings a week at Northshore Community College in Beverly. 

At one point I heard that Fred Sommer was going to be at RISD (RI School of Design) in Providence so drove down to see him. By this time I'd had him as a teacher for a few weeks while studying at RISD but hadn't yet had the top of my head blown off  when visiting him in Prescott, AZ, where he lived (see Fred Sommer, which continues as Parts 2, 3 and an Addendum). That would happen a few years later.

At any  rate, the presentation was a "conversation" with Fred, Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. It took place on the 2nd floor of Benson Hall, where the Photo Department was. Aaron and Fred and Harry sat at a table in the front of the room and students and guests sat in fold-up chairs facing them. My memory is vague from so long ago but I'd guess there were maybe 25 of us in the room.  Some students, maybe a couple of faculty and a few people like me who'd heard about it and returned to the school to listen to these three old friends reminisce about their times together.

I remember they did just that, with Aaron telling a story now often repeated about how he and Fred went photographing together in the Southwest at one point and Aaron shot several rolls of film only to return several hours later to where Fred was to find that Fred had made just one picture.

As the time together drew to a close I made one poorly exposed picture with a Leica of Aaron showing Fred where his new pacemaker was and how it regulated his heart beat.

I love this moment between them, two old friends reunited for a brief time, sharing in the effects of growing older. Sometimes we glorify our heroes and forget that they too are human. I think it is good to remember that they had lives apart from their art, strengths and frailties, tragedies and successes, just as we all do.

Topics: Commentary,Fred Sommer,Aaron Siskind,Harry Callahan

Permalink | Posted April 27, 2014

Fred Sommer: Addendum

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.

Topics: Fred Sommer,Fred Sommer day 2,Fed Sommer Day 3

Permalink | Posted February 15, 2014

Fred Sommer Day 3

This post continues and finishes a series of posts on three days I spent with the artist Fred Sommer in 1979 in Prescott, Arizona. To start on Day 1 go here: Day 1.

Day 2 is: here

I arrived at Fred's door right on time on this third day of my visit. We sat down to breakfast just as we had the two days previously, then we moved to the studio and took our normal positions, Fred, the assistant and myself. Fred asked if there was anything he needed to review from our previous two days of work. I used this time to ask a few questions, which Fred disposed of quickly and efficiently but with extreme respect and courtesy as well.

This was different, I got a definite sense that things were drawing to a close and that there was much to do and it wasn't going to get done with me hanging around. This man had spent two full days with me and put everything he did on hold for me. I said how very grateful I was and told him I would soon be on my way but did he mind telling me how he worked. He smiled as though the question was predictable but was warranted as well. He told me he made twelve photographs a year, with each one worked on for one month. In terms of the 8 x 10 work which included the landscape work and some of the still lifes shot in the studio where we were sitting, he and his assistant would make many prints, trying out different approaches and systems to get what he wanted from the negative. This included toners such as gold and selenium but also a method of acetate masking using color retouching dyes to selectively hold back tonalities so as to deemphasize some areas and accentuate others. He asked the assistant to bring out some prints of what they were working on then and he showed me how this system worked. I would later use this same system, although I was enlarging my 8 x 10 negatives and he was not.

Once we'd covered that topic it was clear it was time for me to go. I felt at a loss of words as to how to thank him. I rushed out to the car and got the Keith Jarrett cassettes and handed them to him. He thanked me and in saying my good byes to Frances, the assistant and to Fred, I became overwhelmed and was trying to hold back tears. I hugged Fred. This seemed to take him aback for a moment, then he relaxed and said that I was welcome. He wished me a safe journey home. 

I got in the car, started it up and drove away with a wave. I remember I drove down to Prescott, which was smaller in those days and then as far as something called Granite Dells, which are wonderful rock formations to the east of town. There I pulled over and burst into tears, sobbing at the end of these three days of an intensely transforming experience and at the generosity of this man who had given me so much. 

Once I pulled myself together and got back on the road the next thing I knew I was in Washington, DC, red eyed, burnt out and exhausted after driving 2300 miles straight. My head was so full I thought it would break as I drove across the country in my aging yellow sports car with little heat. I crashed at a friend's apartment that night and slept for a very long time. 

Art is the oldest and richest inventory of man's perception and comprehension of nature. It is the poetic image of what man has felt the universe to be and how he gradually became friends with different layers of materials and different layers of situations.

Frederick Sommer
Art and Aesthetics, 1982

Part of the dessert landscape series, photograph by Frederick Sommer

No doubt, if you have read all three of these posts you feel cheated. I have described in detail the logistics and framework of my days with Fred Sommer but none of the substance.  Were I to do so, it would do Fred's words an injustice and deprive you of working through what he said and meant on your own. Much of what Fred spoke about to me is published, as he was generous with his thoughts and perceptions. I urge you to read what he wrote. 

Next up: Fred Sommer Addendum  as there are a couple more stories about hanging out with Fred that need telling.

Topics: Fred Sommer,Fred Sommer day 2

Permalink | Posted February 14, 2014