Frederick Sommer: Photography at the Limits of the Avant-Garde Open Access

Barth, Catherine (Spring 2021)

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This dissertation offers a comprehensive account of the work of American photographer, Frederick Sommer (1905-1999). Looking closely at the works produced between 1939-1962, I argue that a defining quality of Sommer’s work is its commitment to effects of density, opacity, and complexity. My claim is that Sommer’s approach to density provides not only a new model of photographic expression but a new form of engagement and viewership, challenging and reanimating the normative terms of straight photography. Putting Sommer in dialogue with canonical modernist photographers Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Minor White, I aim to elucidate the competing paradigms of modern photography at mid-century. Through the detailed analysis of key photographic works, archival materials, and interviews with living artists, I aim to present a new approach to the study of mid-century photography, one that will have ramifications for the understanding of photographic history in the crucial period of the transition from modern to postmodern practices.

Table of Contents

Abstract                                                                                                                                   ii

Acknowledgements                                                                                                                iii

Table of Contents                                                                                                                   vii

List of Figures                                                                                                                         viii


Introduction                                                                                                                            1

Chapter One                                                                                                                            10

A New Process: Slow Revelation 

Chapter Two                                                                                                                            41

Looking Close: War-Era Works 


Chapter Three                                                                                                                         74

Competing Visions: Aperture and Collage

Chapter Four                                                                                                                           117

The Reimagined Negative: Lens, Paper, Smoke, and Paint 

Conclusion                                                                                                                              147

Figures                                                                                                                                     153

Bibliography                                                                                                                           192

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