Inspiration – Sommer


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.

My Life in Cameras no.11

11. MAMIYA C33

The Mamiya twin lens reflex cameras were a breakthrough in their day. Rugged, reliable and straightforward, they were a ‘systems’ camera coming with interchangeable lenses and various accessories when the Rolleiflex and Yashica TLRs were fixed. Every function was external and visible making them practical, working machines. This is the antithesis of the sealed-up, moulded plastic digital cameras of today. My students are first intimidated by these strange devices but invariably fall in love. A Mamiya TLR is a strange, almost Steampunk contraption to members of the iPhone generation.

According to Camerapedia, C33s were made between 1965-69. Very popular in all its forms the Mamiya twin lens reflex began in 1958 and ended in 1993, a long innings. It was the Volkswagen of cameras, or perhaps the Kombi van – big and unwieldy, but never giving up. Surprisingly German in its appearance and handling, almost East-German, considering it’s a Japanese camera design. If you’re interested, Ambientimages blog has some good information.

Diane Arbus used one, as you can see from this photograph of her shooting a love-in in Central Park (hence the daffodil in her mouth).

Diane Arbus in Central Park, 1969, photographed by Garry Winogrand



My own work with this camera as a student was inspired by Frederick Sommer whose photographs of detritus opened up a new world of subject matter for me.

Greg Neville, untitled, 1982

Greg Neville, untitled, 1982

Greg Neville, untitled, 1982

Greg Neville, untitled, 1982