William Mortensen was a real black sheep among the American photographers between two World Wars. He was famous for his dark and grotesque photographs. He wanted to create art, not just to shoot what was in front of him, so he imitated the pictorial paintings from the romanticism period. Although it was quite gothic and scary, his work was very popular at the time, getting him critical acclaim and publications in magazines such as Vanity Fair. Sex and violence were popular and intriguing, both on film and in pictures.
His technical approach was very different in comparison to his colleagues from that time. What everyone was aiming for were clear and bright pictures, where they could show how detailed the photograph could be. Mortensen did quite the opposite. His pieces have blurry lines and distressed edges, dark shading and burned corners. The printing technique was bromoiling. The bromoil process gave the effect of soft and delicate look, romantic and fragile, and it was very popular with the pictorialist artists. Mortensen would use silver bromide paper which he would bleach and print. He often scratched his negatives, added lines, and drawings, and by doing this he expanded he was creating photographs, not just taking them. By adding gelatin solution on top of them, he would hide the manipulations and additional work, so they would preserve their delicate look. His method was different - soft and delicate, and his theme was different - violent and scary. However, it was never vulgar. Everything he did was done with taste. His retouching and chemical washes were discrete, and his openness to the world of violence and witchcraft was blatant. In his photos, there are semi-naked women, monsters, ghosts, violence and grotesque. The reason he combined sex and morbidity, is because sex was the subject of everything, but the morbid addition made it more controversial, and in that was people wanted to see his work even more.
In Hollywood everything was staged, there were setups, sets, hair, and makeup. In Mortensen's photographs, everything was staged and modified, too, but with a different purpose. He wanted to bring into the focus religious motives, nightmares and everything that people were afraid of. During the great depression in America, there was a real reason for fear - poverty and hunger, so hatred was a common emotion that governed human relationship at that time. People were fighting for food, housing, and territory. At that time, Mortensen was switching to another dimension to show how that fear lived among the people. Morbidity and grotesque were not the reason for such poor life quality at the time, so they were unknown, and yet, they were repulsive and daunting. What was repulsive was at the same time attractive, because the human instinct works in mysterious ways. People loved to be scared. A popular photographer from that time, Ansel Adams, who made clean and bright photographs, opposite of Mortensen, fought against his methods and theme and managed to push him deep into the underground, calling him the devil and perceiving his art as satanic work that doesn't have artistic value. When the war came, violence and murder were everywhere in the newspapers, torture was becoming an everyday occurrence.
William Mortensen was born in the Park City, Utah, in 1897. Before the World War I, he studied painting but never continued to practice it. When he moved to Hollywood in the 20's he started taking photographs of famous actors such as Rudolph Valentino and Jean Harlow. He also made many imitations of portraits of real people, where he photographed ordinary people in costumes and dressed them up as Napoleon or Machiavelli. His obsession with satanic rituals, witchcraft, and sorcery originated from his love for mythological and symbolic. Even though he lived in the time before the social and sexual revolution, for some reason his photographs were shown at the exhibitions worldwide and his work was collected by the Royal Photographic Society. Nudity and blood were something people loved to watch and for whatever reason the audience justified their fascination with Mortensen's work. As a popular photographer, he published many instruction manuals for photography and had a weekly column in a newspaper where shared his experience and expertise. He even taught at the Mortensen School of Photography which he founded. Never mind the darkness, he was a bright star of photography at the time and still remains one of the most creative and distinguished artist from that period.
What causes an instant reaction is what human mind considers as dangerous. When facing danger we tend to produce different hormones and our brain is programmed to be repulsed and revolted by scenes of violence and pain. His interest in this subject was psychological. He wanted to explore the field of darkness where all the archetypes lurk and hide. The psychology of Carl Jung and his theory of archetypes and collective unconscious were both inspiration for his work. Jung's theory of collective unconscious implies that there is a field of our earliest memories which we are not consciously aware of that was shaped by are human ancestors. That is the reason we all share the same ideas and same fears, or virtues. Whenever we see the symbol that has almost universal meaning, there is an archetype that stands behind it. What William Mortensen had chosen for the symbols were alarming shapes and figures that trigger fear. There are symmetry and geometrical proportion which can be manipulated in order to create distressing images. Diagonals, for example, activate defense mechanisms, and this artist was aiming to incorporate them in his work. What is also universal for all people, besides fear, are sex and curiosity. What is unfamiliar interest them, and what is sexual draws them even more closely.
There was nothing absurd and morbid about Mortensen's character. In his writings, he often stated that whatever scares us has power over us, and by exposing ourselves to the sources of fear we loosen the power it has over us. He used art to communicate, and he deeply believed that the role of photography, or any other artistic expression, is to share a vision and a message. So, instead of showing what is there in the world, like many of his colleagues from that time did, he wanted to show what is there in the symbolic world; dreams and wonder, love and eroticism, fame and glory, but also war and sacrifice. What stands under the extend and radius of one artistic concept, or the idea, are physical and material things, and they are available to anybody, so he could not see the reason for the artist to communicate them. What he wanted to communicate are the bare and original concepts that were not in the range of visible. He published a book called Monsters & Madonnas in 1936 where he defended his subject and theme from accusations of a purist and realistic photographers. He wasn't just interested into the occult for psychological reasons; he was interested in the mechanics of imagination and creativity. The mechanical and scientific was in everything that an artist had to know about the technical part of the process and that was the Monster. All the creativity and inspiration came from the Madonna, the universal symbol of fertility and birth.
His other book The Command to Look describes the technical process of good image making. He used abrasion process for removing paint from the prints, he mixed his own chemicals and did post production in a manner we would do now in our modern time. He applied chemicals and mixed their tones to get the color from the black and white negative. Everything that he did he advertised and packed into photographer's kits, so he was selling his patents and tools. He was a popular teacher and a knowledgeable artist, but in a series of unfortunate and egotistical occurrences, his colleagues fought against his recognition. In his circles, he was loved and admired. His first job in Hollywood was with the director Ferdinand Pinney Earle. With him were always his fiancé and her younger sister who was also the star of many of his pictures. Her young and innocent figure was a great contrast for demons and monsters. However, the controversy about this artist had already started and all of their photographs were destroyed. After that, the collaboration with Cecil B DeMille began and Mortensen worked as a costume designer and set photographer. His interests for anthropology and culture studies expanded, and he made many tribal masks, ethnic jewelry, paper mache head ornaments and used them as props in many of his private works.
Surrounded by gorgeous women from the golden era of cinematography, he was used to the whole concept of the beauty and the beast. What made people wonder and what shocked them was the poor and unfortunate destiny of such beauties and their inability to protect themselves from calvary and suffering. Awakening the primal, or the unconscious, he mixed what he knew about the elegance of European art and kitschy, shiny aesthetics of American cinema. His world was completely imaginary and he wanted to escape there, where the ideas were hidden. He met and befriended Manly P Hall, a Canadian esoteric philosopher, with whom he discussed various mythical and, even scientific topics. During this friendship, some of his most famous photographs were made, and quite a few of them were never seen and exhibited until the William Mortensen: American Grotesque show at the Stephen Romano Gallery. In our present time of fast paced living and ability to document everything, we lost the characteristic to be shocked easily. There are images or war and violence and nudity almost everywhere we go. So, the subject of Mortensen photographs doesn't shock us anymore, but we find it fascinatingly attractive. During the American Grotesque exhibition, viewers could see how rich his work was; that is had everything, from photo props, poetry and text combination with photos, to post production work.
A group of photographers called Group f/64 fought against pictorialist style, and proudly showed off their pure and modern, sharp focused photographs. Ansel Adams was one of them, and throughout his career, he never once supported Mortensen and his unique style. After his time in Hollywood, he continued to make photographs, but the purist group of artist and powerful people at the top of the showbiz empire managed to push him aside, deep into solitude. He had over 3000 students in his school in Laguna Beach, but he never managed to get to the mainstream audience. During the 1980's interest in his work began to grow. Almost everybody from the art world wanted to know more about this mysterious and extraordinary skillful photographer. Two of his books have been reprinted recently, and besides his theme and subject, people are admiring his technique. It was the time of simple photography where it was possible just to depict what was there like the purist did with their landscape photography. Yet, this artist brought the mysterious into the reality. His book The Command to Look: A Master Photographer's Method for Controlling the Human Gaze has been reissued in 2014, and it contains many of his prints as well as his advice and instructions on how to take a good photo.
Everything he did he did with passion and dedication. He had never liked to leave things as they were, he always insisted on adding something extra, whether that was an additional layer of paint or a new dimension of altered reality. He was a trained painter, and that was the reason he wanted to create his images, to show that photography is not only his passion but his purpose. He liked to add original descriptions to his pieces, but he never appealed to the audience directly. He dedicated much of his writings to other artists, who did not work for fame, glory and money, who - like him, worked for passion and meaning. For him, the photographic lens was a mystical machine that can read into the symbols of the invisible world. He joked that it is the same thing for him if he sees a pretty model or a goat in front of the camera, he only sees the potential of the story that can be told with taking and making an image. What artist and model had to share is enthusiasm, passion, and interest, and they have to work together in order to create a live set that can be changed, developed, improved and refined. That was the point of photography for him, and he liked to share this experience in his books, or in his weekly magazine column. Even though he was not included in textbooks and museums, he was the most recognized and respected photographer in America.
All images used for illustrative purpose only © William Mortensen, 50Wats