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Preface

I was asked by the publisher of The ScreamOnline to write something for the inaugural issue about the American art photographer, William Mortensen.

If you're unfamiliar with him, he worked from roughly 1923 through the early 1960's. Mortensen postdates the pictorialists of Stieglitz' time, running concurrently with the development of straight photography. 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.

There has been a long held contempt for his work by most photo-critics and historians. However, one can still find his books at used book stores and on ebay. His photographs show up at enclaves of photography dealers such as Photo LA, held in Los Angeles once a year. One can even find his prints at auction, depicted and listed in a Christie's or Sotheby's catalog. These artifacts of his life still sell well, and although don't bring the prices of a Weston or an Adams, are nevertheless sought after. What is to follow is a condensed version of the manuscript I hope to complete next year.

"There is nothing new except what is forgotten."
Mademoiselle Bertin

I became interested in Mortensen in 1979 when, as a photography student, I saw an exhibition of his work at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Hollywood. It was assembled by Deborah Irmas and the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. I was amazed by the unreal quality of his work, having only seen that of straight photography all the years before. His images seemed like photographs but then again they didn't.

I wrote down his name and looked for anything written on him but found nothing. A couple of years went by; I never forgot that first impression, and finally I found a copy of one of his books in a used bookstore. Listed in the back were several of his other books. I became an enthusiastic collector.

My interest in Mortensen and his apparent disappearance was due to my poor research abilities at the time. Happily it pushed me into a more thorough reading of the history of photography. Why was there no mention of him in those history books? At the time not many books existed on the history of photography.(1) I began to ask dealers about him and was usually met with a snide comment or a shrug.

As time went on, I found essays by A. D. Coleman concerning Mortensen's work and began to uncover articles written by Irmas concerning that 1979 show.(2) Catalogs of exhibitions turned up, examining the California's Pictorialists, and Mortensen was always included.(3) The Index to American Photographic Collections listed all the major institutions that had significant collections of his work. Periodical reference guides revealed articles written about him. As my knowledge and information increased, I realized that he hadn't truly disappeared but was hovering on the outskirts of recognition. I took it upon myself to find out about this artist who had touched me so long ago. He was gone but not forgotten.

"There is no history. There is only biography."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Five years ago, I decided to spend as much of my free time seriously researching Mortensen's life and work as I could, with the goal of writing a biography and critical reevaluation of his work. Never having attempted something of this magnitude before, I naively thought that it would take a year or so to accomplish. As I got into the basic fact-finding part—when he was born, where he lived, and so on—I realized that that alone would take several years to accomplish. Records were difficult to come by; fires had wiped out his birth, school, and military records. Tracking down marriage, divorce, and death certificates has been an odyssey. Finding city directories to verify home, studio, and associates' addresses proved daunting. Many trips—eight to date—have been made to the Center for Creative Photography to delve into his archive.(4) I've interviewed five of his former students to get a feel for what type of teacher he was and hopefully understand how he affected people.

Checking biographical claims made by him and George Dunham have been at times like chasing the wind. His years spent in Hollywood (1921-1931) are especially clouded with the obscuring fog of time. It has taken many stamps, letters, and long distance calls to pin down even the simplest recalcitrant biographical fact. It's amazing that someone who raised such a clamor during his life could fall into such hazy ambiguity so soon after his death.

With all that said, I'd like to offer a quick-sketch biography. And, for those unfamiliar with Mortensen's work, you'll be able to see some of it elsewhere in this issue. Albert W. Mortensen—this is what is recorded as his name on the Utah 1900 census record—was born in 1897 in Park City, Utah.(5) His family moved to Salt Lake City when he was 11 years old. He was interested in painting and was trained by his high school teacher, and possibly took lessons before that. He was inducted into the army in 1916 and discharged in 1918. It is unclear where he served or what he did, however in one of his notebooks he mentions being in California.(6) Upon his release from the army he says in The Command To Look that he attended Arts Students League in New York City. Their records are incomplete for those years and so there is no documentation of his attendance. However, it is clear from the subject matter and dates in his sketch book and his etchings that he spent 1919 and at least part of 1920 in New York City. He traveled to Greece in 1920 and returned the same year. Traveling back to Utah, he took a job at his alma mater in Salt Lake City and taught art. By the end of the school year he left his job at East Side High School, and in 1921 traveled by train escorting a friend's sister to Hollywood [the sister was Fay Wray].(7)

Mortensen evidently knew someone in Los Angeles who put him in contact with film director King Vidor.(8) He worked in the burgeoning film industry alternately painting scenery, making masks, and engaging in various film art-related services. Simultaneously he began work at Western Costume Company photographing silent film stars in costume.

In 1924 he married Courtney Crawford, a librarian, and moved into her home on Hollywood Blvd. This is also the address of his studio that he maintained in Hollywood from 1925-1931.(9) In 1926 he worked for Cecil B. DeMille on the King of Kings, shooting all the stills with a small format (3-1/4" x 4-1/4") camera during filming (this is purported to be a first, since most still work was done using a large format camera posing the actors after filming had ceased). Also, during this time (1925-1931) he began to enter and show in photographic salons both here and abroad. His work was published in Photograms of the Year, American Annual of Photography, Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and others.

The final phase of his life took place in Laguna Beach, California (1931-1965). Why he moved to Laguna is a mystery. He says that it was due to the depression and changes in Hollywood brought about by sound.(10) Fay Wray gives us a different possibility in On The Other Hand. In 1928 photographs of her (taken years before by Mortensen) appeared in a movie magazine. Evidently they were not nude but were immodest for the time, and the pictures were run with an account of her unchaperoned trip to Hollywood seven years earlier. Her mother and her husband, along with Paramount's publicity arm, pressured Mortensen to sign a document denying the pictures and the story.(11) Perhaps, this helped push him to seek a new locale.

He moved to Laguna Beach in 1931 and opened a studio on Pacific Coast Hwy (then called South Coast Hwy)—the first of four spaces that he rented over the next thirty years.(12) His school, the Mortensen School Of Photography, officially opened in 1931 and always occupied the same address as his studio.(13) Although, according to students I talked with, he at times maintained a darkroom at home as well.

In 1933 Mortensen married Myrdith Monaghan and met George Dunham who became a friend and model.(14) More importantly, 1933 is also the year when he began his long writing collaboration with Dunham, which didn't end until 1960 with an incomplete manuscript titled Composition.(15) The 32-year collaboration yielded 9 books in multiple editions and printings, 4 pamphlets, and over 100 articles in magazines and newspapers. Both Myrdith and Dunham proved to be his most significant models, helping him to produce his most important body of work. The school remained open until a short time after his death from leukemia in 1965.(16)

Mortensen was a restless and relentless darkroom technician. He invented his own texture screens, an abrasion tone process (which employed the use of a razor blade to carefully scrape away emulsion off the print, and used first pumice and then in later years switched to soft carbon pencil to change the tone), the Metalchrome process (a chemical color process that utilized chemical toning—locally applied— to turn black and white prints into color prints), and a non-silver pigment process that incorporated two colors registered together to change a black-and-white negative into a color print. He was also master of the bromoil and bromoil transfer processes and the paper negative. During all this he kept his hand in etching processes, learned from his early days in New York.(17) There are some small prints at CCP, showing that Mortensen also experimented with poured or painted-on developer on film. He then made prints using these as a background, working figures and objects into the abstract pattern.(18)

He was also an early photographic entrepreneur. Using his fame created from his publications, he marketed his school, his texture screens, an abrasion tone kit, a viewing glass (helping the photographer to see in monochrome), and developed a mass-production approach for sales of his images.(19) He was, in a sense, photography's first superstar, leveraging the celebrity he created for himself to merchandise products bearing his name. Later, others cashed-in on his created celebrity by producing his texture screens and reprinting two books, Monsters and Madonnas and The Command To Look, after his death.(20)

"Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past."
George Orwell

After all that has been said about Mortensen, what then has been said by others of his work? At the time, he was one of the most famous art photographers of his day.(21) This is quite an accomplishment, as art photography existed at a time that only allowed but two venues for photographers to be known: the salons (usually hosted by camera clubs—sometimes mounted at the club, sometimes in a local museum) and in print (periodicals and books). Until the 1940's, few museums collected photography and private collections were extremely rare.(22)

In this context it is strange to note that Mortensen's photographs are, in a word, reviled. It is an unhappy twist of fate and a tribute to the capricious nature of cultural artistic taste for one who was so popular in his life to become so disregarded after his death. This turn of events does not belong to Mortensen alone—we can go back through art history and see a plenitude of examples.(23)

As you scan history books for mentions of his work, words such as campy and kitschy are used quite often. Over the last few years historians and critics have described his images as "...anecdotal, highly sentimental, mildly erotic hand-colored prints..."(24), "...bowdlerized versions of garage calendar pin-ups and sadomasochist entertainments..."(25), "...contrived set-ups and sappy facial expressions..."(26), and finally he was described by Ansel Adams as alternately the "Devil"(27), and "the anti-Christ."(28)

More sympathetic attention to his work has slowly evolved. Beginning in the 1970's only two authors, A. D. Coleman and Deborah Irmas, had written anything of consequence in regards to his work. Coleman actually got the ball rolling first with his 1976 article, "The Directorial Mode: Notes Toward a Definition."(29) In 1977 his book on the grotesque in photography included Mortensen.(30) During that same year, 15 of Mortensen's photographs were in a show on California Pictorialism at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, that traveled to Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Austin.(31) In 1979 Deborah Irmas mounted the exhibition, "The Photographic Magic Of William Mortensen," which was the show that I saw. It traveled to Oakland and New York,(32) Irmas wrote other articles that appeared in support of the exhibit and of Mortensen in general. When the show traveled to New York it even caught the attention of Life Magazine.(33)

As the market for photography increased in the early 80's, history books on the subject became imperative. Mortensen and his work were mentioned much of the time, if even for an uncomplimentary sentence; "At that time, William Mortensen, whose 'medieval sensibility'(7) led him to imagine scenes that seemed at once bizarre and amusing to his contemporaries, resorted to montage to create his visions of wickedness and lust [pl. no. 730]."(34)

This sentence is emblematic of the attitude of scholarship dealing with Mortensen's work. Rosenblum, in using Coleman's words, and then citing only the book title and page number [her footnote (7)], leads us astray from his intentions. Coleman words not taken out of context read, "His was an almost medieval sensibility, [my italics] which met with little sympathy from a modernist- and purist-oriented photographic establishment during the 1920's and 1930's, when his finest work was done." Also, where does her information that his contemporaries found his images "bizarre and amusing" come from? Finally, critiquing someone's work as "wicked and lustful" says nothing and gives little insight. In most general histories Mortensen's photography and writings are described with words of disdain or relegated to descriptions of his part in the purist pictorialist debate.(35)

Undeniably Mortensen has earned his place in the history of photography. It is difficult to say whether his dismissal has been through a concerted effort, as A. D. Coleman has put forth,(36) 0r just a general desire to sweep away what modernist critics and historians see as a distasteful display of art photography gone south. I think, though, that Mortensen is here to stay; all that needs be done now is to try a new approach to understand and reevaluate what he accomplished. "What is past is prologue."

Next month—"The Work."

I would like to dedicate this essay to my mom and dad, Norma and Dell, for imbuing me with curiosity, independence, and a need to know the truth. Also, my wife Jean for her love, dedication, support, and excellent eye.

I would also like to acknowledge some people who have provided push and pull, help and insight. Amy Rule and Leslie Calmes at the Center for Creative Photography for their unflagging help and friendly support and just plain friendship; Marcia Tiede—also at CCP—for showing me amazing prints; Michael Dawson and Dennis Reed for making available and sharing photographs, books, and thoughts; Mortensen's students Robert Balcomb, Ralph Hosenpud, Ted Harper, Noel Engel, and Stephen Gillette for generously sharing their insights, knowledge, and adventures; Paul Hertzmann for saying, "Well, you should write a biography"; and all my friends and family for asking from time to time, "So, how's that Mortensen thing going?" Finally, I want to thank Stuart Vail for giving me the space, his confidence, and support.

NOTES:

1. In the early 1980's I could only find Beaumont Newhall's History of Photography, Robert Taft's Photography and the American Scene, and the Gernsheim's Creative Photography and A Concise History of Photography. BACK

2. A.D. Coleman, Light Readings: A Photography Critic's Writings 1968-1978 (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979) and Deborah Irmas, The Photographic Magic of William Mortensen (Los Angeles, Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, 1979). Although both had written other articles it wasn't until later that I found them. BACK

3. Margery Mann, California Pictorialism (San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1977). Louise Katzman, Photography In California 1945-1980 (New York, Hudson Hills Press in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1984). BACK

4. The Center for Creative Photography (CCP) holds the Archive of Mortensen, George Dunham, Grey Silva, and Robert Balcomb (both the latter two were students of Mortensen). The Archive is open to the public and the staff there is helpful and knowledgeable. It contains the archives of 60 photographers and tens of thousands of prints by a couple of thousand photographers. It is located on the campus of the University of Arizona in Tucson. I would urge anyone interested in the history of photography to pay a visit. They also have a print viewing room, a photographic library, and a gallery. BACK

5. The 1900 census record listed his mother, father, and sister with all their correct names and the correct address. I couldn't find them listed in the 1910 census. When he changed his name is anyone's guess, but in every document that I've found after that 1900 census, his name is referred to as William Herbert Mortensen. The earliest record that shows a name change is in the 1913 city directory for Salt Lake City, where he's listed as, Wm H. Mortensen, student. BACK

6. See CCP: Mortensen Archive: AG 147 Box 1, Folder: Biographical Materials: Sketch Book, 1920. BACK

7. Fay Wray, On The Other Hand: A Life Story (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1989). From pages 27-98 she recounts her friendship with Mortensen. It's an interesting story and she remembers with amazing detail events that occurred 60 years past. A different account of Mortensen's life in Hollywood. BACK

8. Ibid., p. 29. BACK

9. Information from Los Angeles City records concerning the marriage and the Los Angeles City Directory concerning the locations. BACK

10. William Mortensen, The Command To Look (San Francisco, Camera Craft, 1937), p. 16. The biography that Mortensen presents in this book is often repeated. Much of it is suspect. He says on page 10 of TCTL, "I owe a great deal to the influence of this man, [film director, Ferdinand Pinney Earle] with his combined gifts of showmanship and outlandish imagination." BACK

11. On The Other Hand, pp. 95-96. BACK

12. These listings were taken from either the Orange County North and South, Laguna Beach Phone Book, or the Laguna Beach Criss Cross directories. His first studio/school was listed at 1734 South Coast Hwy, which also appears to be his home address in 1932. He moved the studio/school to 437 South Coast Hwy (this address no longer exists but would have been a storefront in the Hotel Laguna), 1934-1937. The next address for the studio/school was 903 South Coast Hwy, 1938-1954 (?). I could find no 1955 directory, so a move could have occurred during that year. The building is still there and on the door is a plaque designating his studio (placed there by Owen Phairis in the 1980's.) His last studio address was 448 South Coast Hwy which was located in what is now called the Pepper Tree Paseo across the street from the Hotel Laguna, 1955/56-1965. BACK

13. A listing in the Laguna Beach Biography, in the City Library under William Mortensen makes reference to a newspaper article in the San Clemente News; page 19, col. 5; "William Mortensen Opens Laguna Studio," dated August 21, 1931. BACK

14. See CCP: in the Mortensen archive is a photograph of Myrdith dated 1927, ascension number 88:052:014. There is no record that I've found stating when his divorce became final with Courtney. However Courtney's name is no longer listed with Mortensen in the Los Angeles City Directory after 1926. Only once more in 1929 is Courtney listed in parentheses after "Wm." BACK

15. See CCP: George Dunham Archive, AG 43 Box 1, Folders 23-26. BACK

16. For a more complete chronology of the events in Mortensen's life I refer you to the Center for Creative Photography's publication, Michael Dawson, et al, William Mortensen: A Revival, The Archive 33, (Tucson, The University Of Arizona, 1998). This book gives a near complete bibliography of Mortensen's and Dunham's writings, and includes three essays dealing with Mortensen's life and work. This is the first attempt by an institution or individual to create a monograph about Mortensen. BACK

17, See CCP: the Mortensen Archive, AG 147 Box 23. There are many original etchings showing Mortensen's drawing abilities. I own an etched reproduction of Mortensen's photograph "Indian Lyric" done by him. CCP has just acquired a dichromate etching done by Mortensen of a Heinrich Kley drawing titled "Wet Nurse to Elephants." BACK

18. See CCP: the Grey Silva Archive, AG 134 Box 23. Grey Silva was a former student and friend of Mortensen, a member of PSA and a teacher of the Metalchrome process. BACK

19. He offered small, recopied prints of his most popular images, both individually and as a portfolio in the pages of Camera Craft magazine. In fact Camera Craft was his main platform for selling his merchandise, although ads also appeared in Popular Photography and American Photography. BACK

20. See CCP: William Mortensen Archive, AG 147 Box 9. Letters from Myrdith concerning Jacques de Langre's publication of these books and the texture screens. BACK

21. These dates are arguable, but I'd say his most intense popularity began a year or two before he printed his first article in 1933 until the beginning of WWII—about 1932-1941. However, his book The Model remained in print until 1965. Mary Street Alinder says in her book, Ansel Adams: A Biography (Henry Holt And Company, 1996) p. 88, "William Mortensen was the outspoken leader of the opposition..." and on page 114 she further states, "...Mortensen saw his popularity and reputation as the greatest teacher of technique wane as Ansel's waxed." In Christian Petersen's After The Photo-Session: American Pictorial Photography 1910-1955 (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1997) he says on page 119 in a discussion about Mortensen and his influence on the pictorialist movement that "...he was the movement's most popular author and widely admired photographer." In other recent histories, time and again, he is referred to as the leading pictorialist spokesman of the 1930's. BACK

22. Even then as Petersen states on pages 149-150 in After The Photo-Session, print sales were slim and most pictorialists did not make a living from their work. The real collectors' market for photography didn't begin until the early 1970's. BACK

23. The range of figures is amazing. Bach was lost until rediscovered by Mendelsohn. The 17th-century English poet John Donne was forgotten until the 20th century. The 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite painters in general have regained interest and acceptance over the last 10 years. Painters as diverse as Bouguereau, who Mortensen owes some of his peasant images to, and Norman Rockwell have undergone rehabilitation in the last couple of years. BACK

24. Beaumont Newhall, The History Of Photography (New York, Museum Of Modern Art, Fifth Edition, 1994), p. 192. BACK

25. John Szarkowski, Art On Paper, Vol. 3 No. 5, p. 71. BACK

26. Judy Seigel, Photovision Art & Technique, March/April 2001, p. 42. BACK

27. Mary Street Alinder, Ansel Adams: A Biography (New York, Henry Holt and Company, Inc. 1996), p. 113. BACK

28. Mary Street Alinder, et al, Seeing Straight: Group f.64 (Oakland, California, The Oakland Museum, 1992), p.47. BACK

29. Coleman, Light Readings: A Photography Critic's Writings 1968-1978, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 255-256. BACK

30. A. D. Coleman, The Grotesque In Photography (New York, Summit Books, 1977), pp. 149-50 & 162-65. BACK

31. Margery Mann, California Pictorialism, pp. 57-58 & 75-76. This show was groundbreaking because it linked photo-secessionist pictorialism, post photo-secessionist and California Japanese pictorialism into one show. And for the first time gave an insight into California photography's history. BACK

32. Interestingly, Alinder in Ansel Adams: A Biography recounts on page 320 that "... I accompanied him to the opening of Ansel Adams and the West at the Oakland Museum (where he had a quiet conniption when he discovered that there was an exhibition of pictorialist works by the hated William Mortensen on the next floor)...." BACK

33. "Old Nudes Is Good Nudes" Life Magazine, Vol. 3, Number 5 (May, 1980) p. 9-12. This article once again focuses only on the nudes. BACK

34. Naomi Rosenblum, A World History Of Photography (New York, Abbeville Press, 1984, 1989), p. 565. She showed "L'Amour" as her photographic example and her footnote (7) referred to page 150 of Coleman's The Grotesque in Photography. BACK

35. Keith Davis, An American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate To Digital (Kansas City, Missouri, Hallmark Cards, Inc. 1995), pp. 100-101. BACK

36. Anyone interested in the fate of Mortensen owes a debt of gratitude to A. D. Coleman. He has defended Mortensen's right to be acknowledged in photography's history. He has helped to reacquaint readers with the purist/pictorialist debate. He has been a voice of warning that for history to be meaningful all must be included, reminding us that aesthetic tastes change. And all this done in the face of a very unhappy photo-establishment. Whatever I write about Mortensen must surely be built on Coleman's shoulders. I would direct the interested to read the two aforementioned books by Coleman and his essay "Beyond Recall" in William Mortensen: A Revival, pp. 81-95 and the essay "Conspicuous By His Absence: Concerning The Mysterious Disappearance Of William Mortensen" in his book Depth Of Field: Essays On Photography, Mass Media, and Lens Culture, (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico, 1998) pp. 91-112. BACK

The four images above are:
1. "Greta" (Unknown model) by William Mortensen, Pictorial Lighting (San Francisco, Camera Craft, Frontispiece).
2. "Napoleon" (Peter Lorre) by William Mortensen, The Command To Look (San Francisco, Camera Craft, p.183).
3. "Niccolo Machiavelli" (George Dunham) by William Mortensen, The Model (San Francisco, Camera Craft, p.155).
4. "Adelita" (Myrdith Mortensen) by William Mortensen, Pictorial Lighting (San Francisco, Camera Craft, p.77).

Larry Lytle is a native Angelino. He has an MA in Art from California State University Northridge. Larry is a fine artist whose work has been most recently seen at the Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles and the Society for Contemporary Photography in Kansas City. He is also a commercial artist specializing in theatrical and video key art photography, and is an instructor at the Otis College of Art and Design continuing education. Larry contributed to "William Mortensen: a Revival," published by the Center for Creative Photography, and is currently at work on a biography of William Mortensen. He can be reached via the webmaster (replace the [AT] with @).

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THE COMMAND TO LOOK:
The Story of William Mortensen, Part I

by
Larry Lytle

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B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

F
I
C
T
I
O
N

T
H
E

S
T
R
A
N
G
E

A
N
D

B
I
Z
A
R
R
E

P
H
O
T
O
G
R
A
P
H
Y

E
S
S
A
Y
S

A
R
T

E
D
I
T
O
R
I
A
L
S

TOP