Ben Somoroff (1916 – 1984) is considered to be one of the most important American still life photographers of the 20th century, noted for transforming the American still life photography and tabletop film making into a versatile multi-layered language. The mid 20th century was a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication. Somoroff approached the medium with an artist’s eye and an inventor’s curiosity and expanded the creative potential of discipline. He was revered throughout his career as a master of composition and painterly lighting. He routinely defied expectations of editorial and advertising photography, creating images that were commercially viable while simultaneously timeless. He was an urbane man with cultivated visual tastes.
Ben Somoroff was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was exposed to photography at an early age by his childhood friend Ben Rose, who also introduced him to Alexey Brodovitch. In the 1930s Somoroff began his career as a painter, studying graphic design part time under the visionary Russian master Alexey Brodovitch at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (renamed Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art in April 1938). Among the students in Brodovitch’s class were Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Ben Rose, Louis Faurer, and Sol Mednick. Together with another associate Isador Possoff, the group became known as the “Philadelphia School.” Somoroff said, “Oddly enough, we all went into photography.” Louis Faurer, Sol Mednick, Ben Rose and Ben Somoroff became life long friends and professional colleagues. Loyalty to his friends was paramount.
Being painters, both Somoroff and Penn gravitated towards still life with its long history of metaphor and symbolism, a quality that would later touch the work of both photographers noticeably as they matured. Additionally, both were influenced by their older collogue, photographer Leslie Gill, a friend and regular contributor to Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar. In turn Gill, often copied still life compositions taken from the German Philadelphian painter William Harnett whose flat, ribbon clad, push-pin, still life’s routinely became the basic compositional mechanism the photographer’s adorned with cosmetic and beauty products.
Ben Somoroff demanded of himself the highest craft and most powerful formal execution based on substantial concept. He believed advertising was significant for its reflection of a particular dimension of American life and its focus on “The things we live with.”
Somoroff was a dominant force in commercial photography for over a quarter century, producing landmark imagery for both the printed page as well as television. Literally inventing many of the lighting and prop techniques that have become boilerplate to any still life production, he transformed and deepened the visual language of commercial photography by refining detail and composition, bold scale, defying gravity, and mastering tone in color, by being the definitive painter with light and composition. His commercial photographs often transcend their application to become significant works of art as fresh today as when they were produced. He established laws of lighting i.e. high key lighting, the use of macro lenses to manipulate scale, litho film, translucent plastic to eliminate the horizon line, white on white film with no contrast, in addition to always seeing things though the eyes of a master of composition.
Ben Somoroff was the first photographer ever to be invited by the United States Congress and commissioned to create an image for the US Postal Service commemorating photography. The stamp was introduced on June 26, 1978.