AUBURN — Winfried P. Sommerfeld traveled the roads of mid-20th-century New England in his red convertible with a particular focus in mind.
The Auburn-based photographer took evocative pictures of roadside motels, restaurants, automobile dealerships and similar businesses which he would often make into picture postcards that had a wide circulation. Looking at the motels now you may have wished you had stayed there.
Sommerfeld also took many streetscape pictures in and around Auburn, which had become his home after being adopted from Germany shortly after World War II. And he evidently liked cars — what now look like the big old stylish automobiles you see at classic shows. “He was a car guy. An aficionado,” said Martha Friedman, co-founder of the Photographic Preservation Center of Cambridge along with center director Fred Mirliani.
Sommerfeld, who owned Sommerfeld Photo Film on Southbridge Street in Auburn, moved back to Germany in 2010. He left behind over 1,000 items representing the bulk of his photographic output.
He also left what is now being called a valuable primary source of detailed iconic visual regional history of a time that has faded from view.
The Photographic Preservation Center has acquired the recently discovered collection and plans to bring the images back into the public picture, including an exhibition at the Auburn Historical Museum.
Besides being fascinating in their own right, it is envisioned that the photographs will serve as primary-source material for scholars, students and the general public in researching the culture of post-World War II New England.
“In essence, he captured a moment,” said Mirliani. Following World War II many of the 16 million Americans who had served wanted to get into cars and travel, he noted. The G.I. Bill along with an economy that included an automobile industry transitioning from supporting the war effort to building cars to meet public demand enabled them to do that.
Rachel Youdelman of the Photographic Preservation Center, in a short biography of Sommerfeld for the project, writes that “the images are deeply evocative of the relatively carefree postwar era, when the American family vacationed by car, gasoline was plentiful and cheap, and exploring the USA with hard-won leisure time was a pleasure heightened and facilitated by these many uniquely welcoming, convenient, inexpensive, and hospitable way stations on the road.”
Sommerfeld’s photographs “illustrated middle-class prosperity,” said Friedman. “Which is something we’re losing and people think about nostalgically as opposed to this over-the-top luxury that we see now. The working class was the middle class.”
The time was broadly 1945 to the ’70s. Then came energy shortages, while the Federal Interstate Highway System established by President Eisenhower created highways that paved the way for motel chains that sprung up at interstate exits and eclipsed independently owned motels. However, Sommerfeld was taking photographs well into the 1980s. He officially closed his business in Auburn in 2005.
Thanks in part to a Mass Humanities grant, the Photographic Preservation Center has been doing an inventory and cataloging the work Sommerfeld discarded in several cartons, and plans to show the photographs online on a website and display them in a traveling exhibition that will debut at the Auburn Historical Museum hopefully in the spring.
Mirliani grew up in Auburn and is a member of the board of the Auburn Historical Museum. He said he found out about Sommerfeld’s collection from fellow board member Jack Haroian of Auburn, who had salvaged the cartons but wasn’t quite sure of what to make of the items, including medium- and large-format black-and-white and color negatives, panoramic transparencies, 35mm slides and hundreds of picture postcards.
“I went over to his (Haroian’s) house,” Mirliani said. The collection was in fairly good shape. “I said ‘I’m very interested in these.’ “
The Photographic Preservation Center has been in touch with Sommerfeld via Sommerfeld’s son, Kai-Alexander, a graphic designer with whom he lives in Germany.
“He said he was very pleased someone had found his collection and wished us luck, as it were,” Mirliani said.
According to Youdelman, Sommmerfeld was born in 1930 in Allenstein, East Prussia (now Olsztyn, Poland). The family retains no records of the turbulent years of 1930 to 1945, but what is known that the family fled, and in the mid-1940s Sommerfeld was a university student in Munich and worked as an English translator for American troops. David Potter, a professor of biology at Clark University who lived in Auburn, was serving in Germany and adopted Sommerfeld and brought him here. In turn, Sommerfeld served in the U.S. Army. While he was stationed in Texas, Potter asked Sommerfeld to photograph a particular local species of flower and sent along a camera. “Thus was born Winfried’s career in photography,” Youdelman writes.
“He had a good eye,” Mirliani said. Sommerfeld made portraits of his Army buddies that proved popular. He also took a picture of a horse belonging to the wealthy family of another fellow soldier, a dramatic shot showing the horse rearing up on his hind legs. The father of the soldier was so impressed he asked Sommerfeld to name a price for the print. Sommerfeld, not familiar with such an exchange, said $3.50. The father exclaimed “You insult me” about such a small sum, and gave him $350, Mirliani said. “Winfried said to himself, ‘Hmm hmm.’ “
Back in Auburn, Sommerfeld set up his photo lab. “He went around town photographing,” Mirliani said. Those photographs alone now serve as a valuable historical record of Auburn. Sommerfeld was active in town, serving as chairman of the board of the Auburn Chamber of Commerce. He also ran dancing classes in Auburn that were very popular, Friedman said. “He was kind of a character.”
Sommerfeld also set out on the road. Photographs suggest that he was fond of his red convertible. “He went on the road from the tip of Maine to Cape Cod (and farther south) and accumulated these incredible photographs,” Mirliani said.
Besides roadside motels, “gas stations were set up everywhere, a restaurant in New Hampshire could hold 600 people.” Sommerfeld took pictures of that restaurant and others, with panoramic views of the dining room with chairs and tables set up with tablecloths, plates, knives and forks.
Besides profitability, Sommerfeld may have been inspired to take picture postcards by a similar tradition that was popular in his homeland between about 1915 and 1940.
Youdelman writes that the German postcard images “show civilization contextualized by nature, an approach which distinguished German Romantic and Gothic landscape painting, and later landscape photography as well. We can well conclude that this aesthetic, with its associations of a homeland left behind and idyllic interwar peacefulness, was a spectral influence in Sommerfeld’s photos of American motels, as they correspond to a remarkably similar visual discourse.”
The Photographic Preservation center’s collection has Sommerfeld’s images of more than 35 Cape Cod motels. “He would drive to a motel, talk to the owner (or take photographs in advance) and say ‘We can make postcards,’ ” Mirliani said.
“We own hundreds and hundreds of his postcards. The postcards are very useful because they identify the photograph. It’s useful because he didn’t keep great notes. We’re fortunate to have that,” he said.
“If you have ever had the lucky opportunity to stay as a guest in one of the many motels photographed by Sommerfeld, this bit of American cultural history now fortunately preserved as picture postcards, one glance will evoke emotional and sensory associations,” Youdelman writes.
“You’ll instantly inhale the delicate floral scent of tiny, paper-wrapped bars of soap, or hear the crisp snap of the paper ‘sanitized for your protection’ banner on the toilet … you’ll recall homely, unpretentious meals in serviceable motel dining rooms and muse about the respite of foliage surrounding the building.”
For more information about the Photographic Preservation Center visit www.photopc.org
Contact Richard Duckett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @TGRDuckett