William Mark Sommer [b. 1990] is a film photographer residing in Sacramento, California. Mark has earned his BFA in Photography from Arizona State University and he has exhibited over the United States and Internationally. In 2020, Mark was chosen by Alex Prager for Life Framer's "Open Call" First Place Award. Mark also has self-published 10 zines and has been featured in publications like Stay Wild, Float mag, Aint Bad, Booooooom, Analog Mag, The Modern-Day Explorer, among others.
Within Mark’s series, he utilizes a long-term documentary mode of storytelling to explore themes of human nature, preservation, and empathy. He photographs to further his understanding of a diversity of human experiences, exploring what we hold dear and how our actions shape our environments. He looks for his work to challenge stereotypes by showing the unseen and giving a voice to the misunderstood.
Growing up in the small-bypassed town of Loomis, California, Mark was shaped by the culture of the Lincoln Highway. Experiencing this culture gave him a deep admiration towards small-town America and its the history along the fading highways. Following these experiences and admirations has taken him all over the Western United States and brought him a closer understanding with complexities of American culture by seeing history in person and understanding its progressive nature in forgetting the past.
“The natural elements of prosperity seem concentrated in profusion seldom found. In our primitive simplicity we reasoned that if we could take ores from the mountains and reduce them to gold and silver with which to pay for labor and purchase the productions of the valleys, a community could be established in the country independent of foreign resources. The result will show the success or failure of this Utopian scheme.”
– Charles D. Poston, Building a State in Apache Land, 1878
Beneath the chopped toxic mountains of the rural Southwest United States the spirit of Manifest destiny is continued within the ever-expanding mining industry. This paradoxical idea of divine conquest has been perpetually pursued within these companies as they take land, deplete resources, shutter, and move on. Although this cyclical process is destructive to nature and devastating the communities that have grown to service these mines, nothing is given back when the ore is gone and the cost outweighs the profit.
By conveying this complex history of mining, in Dusted I seek to address the whitewashed narrative of America’s history; a version too often presented in history books and museums. In research, I found these narratives of history tend to only show glory and not the failures of the past, and by doing so this history continues the exploitation of the present. In utilizing historical writings, reenacted history and showing the true destructive nature that persists within the giant open pits that pepper the landscape, I look to reveal what was left in the wake of false promises and hopes.
Jen Bacon: Hey William, thank you for taking the time to work on this feature with me, and thank you for your submission to OTC’s first Web Feature Open Call. We were really excited by the turnout and we’re so glad to be able to feature you and your work on our platform -- again! Just to mention, you were a featured artist in our first online exhibition, Art From Afar: The Shape of Content, which launched in April 2020.
To start, I’d like to hear more about your material choices; where and when did you find film photography as your practice evolved? What is your relationship with film photography and how/where do you see the medium in association with the contemporary landscape of photography as a whole?
William Mark Sommer: Hello Jen, thank you for selecting me for both, it was really great to be a part of the Art From Afar: Shape of Content Exhibition, receiving that opportunity was a good morale booster to me when this pandemic initially took hold of us on the West Coast.
Film photography has been a part of my practice from the beginning. Growing up in the 90s, digital wasn’t available to me and my family, so we mainly utilized disposables and Polaroids as our way of documenting family events. Film became a more integral part of my life in high school where I was able to get my first introduction to a black and white lab. The magic of hand developing my first roll of film and then seeing the negative form illuminated was a romantic experience, and I still feel it to this day when I pull the negatives off the reel. This love of film has stretched over my 15 years of creating and through its unique physical frame I have developed my style as a photographer.
Film within contemporary photography is interesting and it seems like there is a division of the people that use it and how they utilize it, but that division is also obscure but symbiotic in the grand scheme of keeping film alive. With the digital revolution coming full swing in 2011, I experienced many of my beloved film stocks die. Through the years, I have also experienced many of my darkroom-based schools go digital-only, so I have a soft spot in my heart when it comes to people using film for any sort of reason because it keeps it alive. I would love to see more schools teaching it as a way of promoting the history that came before and giving people the opportunity to experiment and learn with such a beautiful medium.
JB: I’d like to hear more about your self-published zines and what it is about those series of publications that you see as an efficient mode of photographic presentation, additionally with the newest model of/in the monograph.
WMS: I saw zine form as a great way to give a series a tangible place to be seen within a sequence that is cost-effective to both the artist and the patron. Within many of my zines, they are the smaller stories that wouldn’t work for a larger narrative, like in my zine Buckeye. Buckeye is my story about finding the feeling of home in a place I had never been. This zine was shot over a two-week residency at Open Wabi in central Ohio. Buckeye was initially created through intuitive shooting and exploration all around Ohio, but the theme came to me in post-production. Seeing all the photos helped me gather a thesis to the work that would fit perfectly within my way of formatting this shorter story into a zine.
Zine creation was introduced to me through skateboarding in Ed Templeton and his self-published and broadly published zines. This different world of bookmaking of a smaller, more self-reliant production wasn’t shown to me in school, but it was heavily used within the skate scene. Getting my work published by Blood of the Young zines really drew me to creating my own self-published zines and it helped me devise ways of how to construct them.
Currently, I have stepped back from zine creation to focus more on select projects that I hope to publish in a monograph book form in the next couple of years. I was hugely inspired by Mark Klett to push these forms further into a more standard long-form project that would be better suited in the book form. Though I don’t have any zine releases on the horizon, I feel I could easily come back to their creation if the right project came to me.
JB: I too grew up in a small town, though rural, I feel that those experiences have led to an appreciation of “the small things” in a larger world that is exponentially out of reach, what specifically do you search for “along the fading highways?” What landmarks do you see as the most signifying or most telling about your process and/or practice?
WMS: That’s the perfect way to say it, especially now more than ever. I recently moved back home to be with my family again through COVID, and though the move is because of a negative context, it really feels good to be back in more of a smaller perspective where I can try to breathe through the struggles of now.
Creating along the highways I utilize both intuitive and then orchestrated ways of creation. Many of my projects start through exploration and collecting through the lifelong influences from my family and their love of travel, car culture, and the history of America. Working within the project format, after my base research and exploration, I build upon what I previously made by returning multiple times and further expanding my search. As many of my projects grow, I look to show the culture of a place, the neon signs that gave directions to travelers, the bars and diners where people have continually gone since they were built, the theaters and main streets where people used to gather. I look to these third places to truly show the culture of a place, and they all remain important landmarks stretching throughout my work.
JB: I definitely see the influences of notable photographers like Stephen Shore, Frank Gohlke, the theme of the New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape in your work. Is this mention applicable, what has influenced you and your work? Where do you see other working artists using the same themes and methodologies that interest you?
WMS: The New Topographics was a huge influence to me when it came to creating most of my recent work and Dusted. I had the fortunate opportunity to work closely with Bill Jenkins, the curator of the New Topographics exhibition and book while I studied at Arizona State University. Though he personally hated talking about the New Topographics after all these years, Bill taught it thoroughly within his Understanding Photographs and The Language of Photographs classes. In those classes, I felt like a sponge soaking up all his information and personal stories of working with these photographers and creating one of the most influential photo shows. Through working with Bill and Mark Klett at ASU I grew more towards conveying these stories of man's impact on the landscape that were initially introduced with the New Topographics Exhibition.
Besides my influences in the classroom and conversations between friends and colleagues, I try and keep actively collecting and learning from photo books. There are so many beautiful photo books that get released every day that could inspire me from maybe just one image, to sequencing, to the way the book was constructed. A few books I have recently enjoyed and found inspiration in are:
Sam Contis - Deep Springs
Raymond Meeks - Ciprian Honey Cathedral
Greg Girard - City of Darkness; Revisited
Mimi Plumb - The White Sky
Robert Adams - Tree Line: The Hasselblad Award 2009
Robert Adams - Why People Photograph
JB: If you could go back to your start, the beginnings of your traditional darkroom days in school, what would you tell yourself about your work and how to make it?
WMS: Great question, I really don’t know what I would say to myself or if I would change anything in my process of growth. This process of making mistakes along the way and having both positive and negative interactions have shaped me and I feel those building blocks where and are important to have, and not to have a cheat sheet to jump steps without learning the lesson first. There are things I look back on as wasted time and wish I could’ve utilized the experience better, arrogance and disillusionment have gotten in the way in my youth, but so much of that came as a learning experience in growth that I feel I need now. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the mistakes in life that it took to challenge myself to do better. I feel without the lessons of self-discovery I would be a different person, maybe someone who isn’t even practicing art and photography any longer. I feel that struggle has kept me going, and has motivated me to keep trying to push forward to succeed.
In regards to film and darkroom work, I’ve recently had a mentor of mine ask why I still shoot film and their response to me was your time is better suited not dealing with the trials of developing, scanning and then the monotonous editing dust to create a digital negative. But I personally see that as the meditative part of film and the process that it takes to understand work. At the same time I think it would be interesting to take his advice and try out digital again.
All I think I would say to myself is “be a better listener.”
JB: Do you have any tips for other young artists who are new to film photography?
WMS: Use film like you would any other camera. I know that may be a weird thing to say, but I know switching between cameras and mediums sometimes leads to a regression in the normal use and creation. In my past, I forgot my natural way of creation in switching cameras, but knowing now it is better to create and develop your style in the same manner whether it is with digital, 35mm, medium format or even large. It’s better to cohesively create so you can further develop your style. Have fun with new cameras or toy cameras, just don’t let them slow you down, don’t be afraid to shoot the whole roll, there’s always another.
Another thing, seek mentorship to help grow your craft, speak to artists, learn what others are doing in the field, and just create as much as you can.
JB: What is your favorite part of the darkroom?
WMS: Just the magic of seeing a photo come to life through light and chemicals. That experience is just magic to me.
JB: What image or series comes to mind as your strongest? What specifically makes it so?
WMS: I’m not sure if there is a way to quantify what is better to me, there is the work I have found success with, there’s the work that is challenging and fun to create, and there is the work I have in my mind that I hope to bring to life. Especially now within the pandemic, being limited in creating in the field has made for more time for sequencing, editing and book making. That change in ways of creation has led me to reassessing older work and enjoying the memories that came with the creation of that. I feel like my interest are always shifting day to day with my projects, one day I will be really motivated to edit and do research for my Dusted project, some days I feel more influenced to take photos for my Black Thumb project, and others it’s nice to get out and see what I can find in my home town along the Lincoln Highway. All of these projects hold a different space for me and I feel I put my spirit into all of them.
JB: What projects do you have planned for the future? What’s coming up or what’s next for you and your work?
WMS: I have so many ideas I hope to explore once this pandemic is over; just having the ability to interact with people outside my home again is my main hope for the future. I’m looking to move forward in expanding my work on my Dusted and Lincoln Highway projects, hopefully moving forward I'll be able to find/work with a publisher to create some great books and shows that involve those works and others. Over this extensive time of being home it’s been hard to make plans and plan ahead, but I have been enjoying creating with my 4x5 by going for walks or watching the transitions of the sun through multiple exposures. This quiet time of creation has been great through the madness of the outside world. Looking at this coming year brings me a lot of hope, and I look forward to being able to travel again and pursue work outside my hometown. I’m hopeful that planned shows go up and will be seen, that we get time to sit together and enjoy a cup of hot coffee in the shop, I’m hopeful that colleges will reopen and there will be new people to teach photography, I’m hopeful to meet new people who let me take their picture.