At the August meeting, I briefly discussed the American photographer William Mortensen (1897-1965) as one of the artists who has inspired my work. He was fiercely maligned and ostracized in the second half of his career, especially by Ansel Adams, and generally by “straight,” i.e., less manipulative practitioners, such as Group f/64, labeled “straight” in contrast to the “pictorialist” photographers, and by the East Coast art establishment of the time. This exclusion from important exhibitions and history of photography books drove Mortensen to the point of returning to painting in his last few years. Having published more than a dozen highly popular photography textbooks and instructional pamphlets from the 1930s to the 1960s, he was much less well known after his death, but is now enjoying a revival. Some of you wanted to know more about this innovative precursor of the digital era, and so I thought I would start the discussion here.
Mortensen began his career as a set photographer and mask maker in Hollywood and later ran his own popular studio and photography school in Laguna Beach, California. He was particularly known for his discussions and implementation of various techniques to enhance the final prints in chemical and physical ways (now made so much easier with digital techniques). Since some of his images appealed to popular tastes, such as the pinup style, while others delved into the extremely pictorial subject matter, even toward what we might consider kitsch, and at times included esoteric mythology and grotesque elements, he was highly controversial.
To illustrate the range of his work in just one category, I am showing four items from my collection: An early nude from the 1920s created in his Wescosco Studio period, the cover of the Know your Negative pamphlet (1954), and two of his signature images, “Caprice Vennois” and “Mutual Admiration.”
I especially recommend Monsters and Madonnas. A Book of Methods (San Francisco: Camera Craft, 1936), The Command to Look (San Francisco: Camera Craft, 1937, reprinted and expanded by Feral House in 2014), William Mortensen: A Revival (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Center for Creative Photography, 1998), and American Grotesque—The Life and Art of William Mortensen (Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 2014). If you would like me to review any of these, please let me know.