In the sun-kissed land of California, a war waged between two schools of photography: the Group f/64 straight shooters and the Pictorialists with the Anti-Christ at their helm. The future of photography teetered in the balance.
To Ansel Adams, the renowned nature and landscape straight-shooting photographer, the Anti-Christ wasn’t a pitchfork wielding demon, but the Park City, Utah native, William Mortensen. Mortensen, famous for his Hollywood portraits and his affiliation with witchcraft and demonology, debated fiercely with Adams on the fate of photography, producing nine books on the craft and holding a weekly column in the Los Angeles Times. Yet, despite heading up a school of photography in Laguna Beach and being published in many established magazines, his grotesque, gothic, and savage images ensured that this ‘devil’ has nearly been erased from the halls of photography fame, his work preserved by a select few.
For contemporary art dealer Stephen Romano, who published the catalogue “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft: William Mortensen 1897-1965,” Mortensen is one of the lost geniuses of art’s history:
“I first became aware of William Mortensen’s art twenty years ago when I saw a copy of his Magnum Opus “Monsters and Madonnas” in a basement flea market in the east village of New York. The book itself was covered in mouse pee, which I later came to think of as an apt metaphor for how the artist and his legacy had been relegated to less than a footnote in the cannon of not only the history of American photography, but also America cultural history, as I consider William Mortensen’s oeuvre a nation treasure. Sadly, there isn’t a great deal of work left. Mortensen destroyed a lot of it as he went along, raising the standard of what he thought held up of his work as a picture “worthy of his name” as he put it.”
Born in 1879, William Mortensen studied art and painting, traveling abroad to improve his style and technique. After returning, he promptly relocated to Los Angeles where he served as an escort for Fay Wray, introducing her to the Hollywood circles which would later lead her to be immortalized in King Kong. While not an actor, Mortensen became renowned for his portraits of Hollywood stars, as well as costume design, but his heart remained with the legends of ancient mythology and the darkness within the human psyche—its fear, sexuality, and lust for power.
To explore his themes of beauty walking in the hands of the beast, of images rife with bloodshed, nudity, and torture, Mortensen became a late leader in a class of photography called pictorialism. This technique, much like the photomontage style of the Photoshop era, manipulates the photograph using double negatives, chemical washes, and textures, such as engraving or painting, to transform the image from one of captured reality to one of imagination.
During that time, photography was a budding art where technicality reigned supreme and a basic knowledge of chemistry, physics, and optics was necessary for success. From using the right lens, to understanding a darkroom, to even wielding the complicated mechanism of a camera, the art of photography was a hard craft to master. With the invention of the Kodak camera, photography opened up to the public—with one click, anyone could take a photo—and the artistry of it came into question. If anyone could take a picture, was it truly art?
The everlasting question of ‘what is art?’ brought Ansel Adams and William Mortensen at each other’s throats. Adams considered Mortensen’s subject matter garbage. For Mortensen, if a photograph relayed no translation of reality to creativity by the artist, then how could the artist be considered an artist? Mortensen’s style embodied soft impressionistic lines, gothic tones, and surreal aspects, seeking to bridge human psychology to produce direct feelings—be they sensuality, aversion, or fear—with associated symbols. For the f/64 Group, who praised straight, crisp lines, and high-contrast images, Mortensen’s work symbolized an outdated style that hindered their efforts to revolutionize the art.
“After many years of collecting and dealing in his works, I don’t believe Mortensen is to be contextualized within the history of novelty or trick photography,” Romano continued. “That’s something the elites of the photography world force upon him to discredit his genius. His craft, his technique, he made up and perfected as he went along to enable him to execute the vision he had of art as medium which allows us to confront our own mortality.”
“…some have suggested that the fear of death is the basic motive of all art, driving men to try to immortalize a little of themselves in material more enduring then the flesh…”
While Mortensen’s style generated disdain, his subject matter came under speculation as well. Dedicated to capturing the portraits of witchcraft, demonology, and sorcery rites, Mortensen photographed a variety of shocking images depicting occult figures, witches, demons, and the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Overcoming the ‘monster’ resonated with him, inspiring him to craft scenarios of supposedly good men torturing and breaking women accused of witchcraft, even showing that moment in the human psyche when terror borders on insanity.
Even as Mortensen’s popularity declined and vivid images of World War II came overseas, Mortensen’s photos crafted the sinister beside the broken innocent, showcasing despair and power meant for dungeons and grottos instead of a gallery. Yet, despite his writhing, tortured witches of “Tribunal” to his sexually glorified broomstick witch of “The Witch,” Mortensen’s style has come full circle to encompass the cut and paste, filter, and tampering of modern day Photoshop to create unique, odd, shocking, and otherworldly images. Thus, Mortensen has been revitalized in the art community, and like the snake eating its own tail, his techniques are now dominant in the field—even if the mechanics are done through a computer program.
“Mortensen ranks as one of the greatest artists of the past century in my view. An artist who wasn’t constrained by the limits of his chosen medium, but rather expanded the possibilities of it by inventing and perfecting techniques to perpetuate his vision,” concluded Romano. “Today, Mortensen’s art is even more relevant than it was when he made it. In a world where we are no longer able to suspend our disbelief and read a photograph as a record of the truth, William Mortensen is to be recognized as an artist first who occupies the same parthenon as visionaries such as Henry Darger, Jheronimus Bosch, Francesco Goya, and Francis Bacon. The ones who could peel back the layers and make an art that would speak to the very primal core of our existence and balance the beauty of being alive with the terror of being alive.”
William Mortensen’s fantastic works will be showcased at the SCOPE Art Fair, March 2-5 in New York City.
About Stephen Romano:
Stephen Romano is a native of Sarnia, Ontario, which he left at the age of sixteen. Stephen went to art school to study sculpture and drawing, which was basically a 4-year party. After a few years as a practicing artist in Toronto, Stephen turned his attention to art dealing contemporary artists as well as artist’s estates. Stephen lives with his three girls and lovely wife in Brooklyn, New York.
Campion, Chris. William Mortensen: Photographic Master at the Monster’s Ball. The Guardian. 6 October 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/06/william-mortensen-photography-master-macabre. 23 February 2017.
Loren, Cary. Monsters and Madonnas: Looking at William Mortensen. 50Watt.com. 10 October 2014. http://50watts.com/Monsters-and-Madonnas-Looking-at-William-Mortensen. 23 February 2017.
Lovejoy, Bess. The Photographer Who Ansel Adams Called the Anti-Christ. Smithsonian.com. 04 December 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/photographer-who-ansel-adams-called-anti-christ-180953525/. 23 February 2017.
Lytle, Larry. The Command To Look: The Story of William Mortensen Part I. The Scream Online. http://thescreamonline.com/photo/photo06-01/mortensen/commandtolook1.html. 23 February 2017.