loader image

William Mortensen: American Grotesque

William Herbert Mortensen was born on January 27, 1897 in Park City, Utah, the son of Danish immigrants, Agnes and William Peter Mortensen who had immigrated from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1883. During World War I, Mortensen served with the United States Infantry from August 6, 1918 to May 16, 1919. At his enlistment, he recorded his occupation as painting.

After his discharge from the army, Mortensen briefly studied at The Art Student’s League in New York. In May 1920, Mortensen traveled abroad in Greece, Italy, Egypt and Constantinople. He returned to Utah, then traveled to Hollywood as an escort for his friend’s sister, Fay Wray. Wray’s parents, who were devout Mormons, charged Mortensen with being the young Faye Wray’s chaperone. Mortensen began his photographic career in Hollywood as a chance encounter with Cecil B. DeMille, for whom once he arrived in Hollywood, he was unknowingly working as a handyman and gardener to earn money.. Once they met, DeMille was so impressed with the young Mortensen he hired him as an on set mask maker (examples of which will be in the exhibition), and as Mortensen saw photographers working on location he came up with the novel idea of taking the promotional photographs as the filming occurred as oppose to the grueling process of restaging the action entirely and holding still, and was subsequently hired by DeMille to do so. Mortensen would then in his down time use the available resources of the movie set’s extras and props, “King of Kings” and “East of Zanzibar” for instance, to produce his own personal art.

[quote_box_center]To appreciate Mortensen’s proper place in the history of photography, it is necessary to explore the underlying ideas that inspired his preternatural imagery[/quote_box_center]

Mortensen at this time also became acclaimed and sought out as one of the leading portrait photographers in Hollywood, often convincing aspiring actresses to take their clothes off and using them as subjects for his own art. In 1931, as Mortensen’s star was rising, Faye Wray’s mother paid an unexpected visit to Mortensen’s studio where she discovered to her horror nude photographs of models, and possibly Faye Wray herself, engaged in hedonistic and occult montages. Enraged, she had Mortensen destroy all of the glass negatives, and it was Faye Wray’s mother’s intention to bring her young daughter back to Utah. The heads of RKO Radio Pictures, whom were in the pre production stages of “King Kong” w Faye Ray, however, convinced Ms. Wray that they would extricate Faye Wray from Mortensen by blacklisting him in Hollywood. Mortensen was finished.

Mortensen moved to the artist community of Laguna Beach, CA where he opened a studio and the William Mortensen School of Photography. It was here, away from the fast lifestyle and many distractions of Hollywood, where he was able to focus and develop in the early 1930’s what are considered to be his masterworks.

Mortensen’s investigation involved the pictorialism style of manipulating photographs to produce romanticist painting-like effects. Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of “creating” an image rather than simply recording it. Mortensen was seminal in developing techniques for using textured screens, using several negatives in the building of a photographic image without resorting to novelty, and many other developing and printing techniques. Mortensen proselytized these techniques, most overtly from 1934 – 1956 when Mortensen co-authored nine books in conjunction with George Dunham on photographic techniques, including “Projection Control, 1934”, “Pictorial Lighting, 1935”, “The Model: a Book on the Problems of Posing, 1937”, “Print Finishing, 1938”, “Outdoor Portraiture: Problems of Face and Figure in Natural Environment, 1940”, “Flash in Modern Photography, 1941”, “Mortensen on the Negative, 1940”, “The Female Figure: Flesh and Symbol, 1954”, “The Paper Negative, 1954”, and “How to Pose the Model, 1956”, as well as “Monsters and Madonnas” (1936) and “Command to Look” (1937) both now considered to be rare seminal books.

Of the importance of Mortensen’s writings author and Mortensen scholar writes “To appreciate Mortensen’s proper place in the history of photography, it is necessary to explore the underlying ideas that inspired his preternatural imagery. Mortensen laid out the basics of his technical and philosophical approach to picture-making in a seminal 1934 essay and in his first four books on methods. But it is his fifth and most compact book, The Command to Look (1937), with its innovative application of psychology to photography, that serves as the real master key for unlocking the secrets of William Mortensen’s singular vision.”

The style itself thrived until the 1940’s, and Mortensen is regarded as “The father of Pictorialism” Mortensen’s commitment to this style however, brought him criticism from straight photographers of the modern realist movement and, in particular, he carried on a prolonged written debate with Ansel Adams.

His arguments defending romanticism photography led him to be ostracized from most authoritative canons of photographic history. In an essay, Larry Lytle wrote “Due to his approach both technically and philosophically in opposition to straight or purist adherents – he is amongst the most problematic figures in photography in the twentieth-century… He was described by Ansel Adams as alternately the “Devil”, and “the anti-Christ”.

Adding to this antagonism with the “proper” photographic community of his time was his working methods which had greater affinity with painters than with photographers, who would austerely edition works in limited numbers, assuring each print was identical to the next. Mortensen experimented boldly, fearlessly and unself-consciously. He would work with a razor in the darkroom, destroying any picture unworthy of his name. What survives, we regard as satisfactory to his meticulous standards, weather he chose to sign it or not, or use his studio seal. Of this Mortensen would conclude and advise to other photographers “Throw pictures away recklessly. Every photographer saves too many pictures. Without complication, tear up your proofs and decimate your prints. And having gotten rid of them, forget them. Remember that every inferior picture that you discard raises the average excellence of those that remain.”

OCTOBER 15 – NOVEMBER 30, 2014

The works of photographic artist WILLIAM MORTENSEN (1897 – 1965) will be featured in a one person exhibition at the STEPHEN ROMANO GALLERY

As we approach the 50th anniversary of this seminal photographic artist’s passing, this exhibition is a tribute to the artist’s vision and legacy. ✪