Frederick Sommer, Medallion, 1948
The strange photographs of Frederick Sommer struck me like a bell when I was shown them in 1983.
Sommer combined the democratic gaze of the camera with an attitude influenced by Surrealism. He would collect detritus found in Arizona rubbish dumps and arrange it in his studio in bizarre assemblages that were unprecedented in photography.
He liked the staring gaze of the large format camera, its ability to capture fine detail, but he focussed it on the lowest subject matter, rubbish that had baked in the desert sun.
He was friends with the Surrealist Max Ernst and you can see the affinity in the image above. Ordinary objects, the head of a doll and a piece of wood, are combined in a way that ‘multiplies’ the materials, giving them an eerie power. In Medallion, the camera stares at the doll and the doll stares back.
“He was interested in objects with histories, things imbued with the evidence of time and chance. (his still lifes) stand as emblems of memory. Sommer transforms these trivial relics into objects of talismanic power and mystery. – Keith F Davis.
Tina Modotti, Bandolier, corn, sickle, 1927
Tina Modotti’s Communist still life made a big impression on me as a photography student. It was a case of the sum being greater than its parts. On the face of it, it’s a simple arrangement of three ordinary objects, though a very nice one on purely pictorial terms. But the objects, which at first may seem prosaic, are in reality full of meaning when viewed in the context of Mexican politics in the early 20th century. I remember being struck by how a photograph of ordinary objects could somehow magically stand for a big idea.
The photograph was one of several Modotti made in 1927, the year she joined the Mexican Communist Party and began a relationship with the Mexican revolutionary Xavier Guerrero. Modotti had learned photography with her lover Edward Weston who was himself a master of the still life. Then, as she came under the sway of radical left politics, her subject matter turned toward proletarian themes.
In this image, the objects are symbols. The sickle quotes the trademark symbol of the communist party, the hammer and sickle. The corn is the staple food of Mexico and stands for an oppressed peasantry. The bandolier is a familiar article of Mexican revolution. Wrapped together as a monogram, the photograph becomes a call to arms, like a banner or a slogan. The image was once described as “a perfect synthesis of a great ideology”
Modotti was frequently scratching for money when she embraced Communism, so it’s particularly ironic that a vintage print was sold at auction in 2005 for $120,000.
Bill Brandt, Evening at Kew Gardens, 1937
What were the photographs that intrigued you early on and got you started in photography?
When I was “young in photography” as a teenager, there were some Bill Brandt images in a museum catalogue that taught me about the poetic possibilities of photography and the range of potential subject matter.
Saying you were inspired by Bill Brandt is not original, everyone was, it seems like his role in life was to nudge people into the arms of this medium. There is something about the distinctive personal vision combined with the accessibilty of his pictures.
This image is suspended in time, so gentle it has a sensory effect – you can hear the sound of dusk. And yet look at how simple it is, only two elements: the bird and the background. The beauty of that white form reminds us of Brancusi sculptures, and yet it is purely photographic, taken in a moment of time before the bird moved on. And how other that bird is from us.
Brandt started out in Surrealism and even in his documentary work he never fully left it. This image has some of that aroma of strangeness, of another reality shadowing the ordinary daylight world.