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

by
Larry Lytle

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“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats

As is apparent in Part One of this essay, we have seen a basic lack of affinity by others towards Mortensen's work. Whether it's due to the content, manipulation, or subject matter, even those who champion him have difficulties in justifying the importance of his oeuvre.1 The disjunction seems to happen between the content/subject matter of his images and how he fits into photography's history.

On the surface his photographs seem outré. We recognize the pin-up, the highly stylized costume drama, or a series of over-the-top grotesques. If we dig deeper we understand that Mortensen presented these images for very specific and profound reasons. If taken seriously, they form a legitimate counter to photography's straight or purist movement. More than that, his work and words form a surprising philosophy that presages the postmodern approach to photography.2

Most importantly, Mortensen is noteworthy for another accomplishment. He called into question the representation of fact as the subject matter of the photograph. Of course, photographers since the time of Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) had understood and manipulated the presentation of fact.3 But, Mortensen took this idea one step further. He developed a technique that challenged our basic perceptions about what constitutes a photograph. To understand this accomplishment we must go back to the beginning of photography to see why that's so important.

“And, after all, what is a lie? ’Tis but
The truth in masquerade; and I defy
Historians, heroes, lawyers, priests, to put
A fact without some leaven of a lie.”
Lord Byron

In much of the mid-19th century critical art literature, we see the problems caused by photography in the art establishment. From the beginning, concern was raised by painters and critics about the effect photography would have on art. Photography's amazing ability to represent reality raised upsetting questions. Because it could copy nature so well, would it create a class of copyists rather than artists? Would the public prefer a photographic portrait over a painted one? And so on.

Due to the photograph's record-keeping ability it was immediately placed, by some, as a handmaid to science and painting.4 So, from the outset, photography held an important relationship with these two disciplines because the camera could see and freeze subjects for study later and in greater detail.

In turn, science's use of photography has deeply affected our perception of the photograph as a document of fact. Whether we look at a photograph of a person or an object, that image carries with it the feeling that we are a witness to truth. Forensic sciences use the photograph to document death and the circumstances surrounding it. The archeologist documents the artifacts of another time creating a redundant future record for others to study.5 Upon reflection, this link seems natural. After all, photography is an art created by science.

As with science, photography was also immediately useful to art. Painters could use a daguerreotype in place of a highly detailed quick-sketch. It afforded the painter a way to quickly obtain an image for reference to use in a future work.6 In fact, an industry of photographs for art reference grew in the early days. Images of landscapes, people, and architecture could either be photographed by the painter himself (as in the case of Degas, Delacroix, or Eakins, to name a few) or bought from an enterprising photographer.

As the 19th century progressed it became apparent that photography could be its own artform.7 To make the change from a recorder of fact to a work of art, art photographers were compelled to alter its look. A delineation had to be made for the viewer, buyer, and critic between its use as a tool of fact—the document—and its use as a tool of expression—art. It had to undergo a transformation into something that looked like what the public accepted as an art object. A photographer could use materials that were photographically derived to make the image look like a painting or drawing.8 Robert Demachy (?-1938) and others didn't use the guise of photography-into-drawing to challenge perceptions about what constituted a photograph. It was done to prove that photography contained an expressive quality equal to that of painting.

“Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of their wonders.”
Francisco Goya

If we are to understand Mortensen's work we must include the discussion above. Because his best work confronts us with questions about whether he has created a photograph or something other than a photograph. He also brings in to question the way we evaluate and think about what constitutes the language of photography. Finally we must look at his work in terms of its use of painting/drawing, etching, photography, movie making, art history, and polemics to create a type of hybrid not seen until the 1960's with artists such as Andy Warhol.

We also must consider all the influences accumulated during his beginnings as an artist to understand why he approached his work in the way that he did. Mortensen, as we know, began his training as a painter at around the age of ten. About 1919 while in New York he studied etching. Soon after, he began to use photography more than any of the other media which had occupied his interest.9 In 1921 he quickly entered into the film industry. Following his avocation as a photographer and working as a set painter, mask maker and what-have-you, he began to develop his photographic style.10

What we see in the best of his work is a combination of all those elements. From his art background he incorporates drawing/painting in the handwork behind many of his figures (figs. 1 & 1a), usually drawn on a paper negative and then printed along with the photographic image. The textures that came from his graphic printing techniques can be seen incorporated in many of his photographs (fig. 2). These were done using his texture screens in the printing process.

He developed from photographic techniques his abrasion tone process, which is essentially a form of retouching. Retouching was usually used to eliminate unwanted blemishes, wrinkles, pubic hair—or more radically, to slim down or alter the shape of a figure. He used his procedure to enhance the overall image. For Mortensen it was an additive process as opposed to a reductive one. He would use it to remove blemishes on his commercial portraits, but incorporated it in his art to make drastic changes in composition or information.

Drawing on his lessons learned in film we see his use of a fabricated reality. He created historical or fictional characters through the use of make-up and costume. His method of directing the model is also related to his film experience (fig. 3).11 Mortensen's use of space also speaks to the visual language of cinematography: the close-up (fig. 4) the medium shot (fig. 5) and the long shot (fig. 6).

Mortensen's references in his work show a keen regard for art history. He uses mostly paintings as platforms for some of his photographs. (figs. 7, 8, 9, 10). The influences of Francisco Goya (1746-1828) are unmistakable, especially when one compares themes and images of Los Caprichos (issued 1799) and The Disasters of War (1810-14) to Mortensen's work (figs. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18). He also shows a connection to Symbolist imagery, particularly the Decadents such as Félicien Rops (1833-98) (figs. 19, 20, 21, 22). Imagery, using workers-in-the-field and the peasant class, has an affinity for artists like Bouguereau and Corot (figs. 23, 24). Finally, his appreciation for Renaissance portraiture is unmistakable (figs. 25, 26).

Mortensen's use of polemics in his imagery is indisputable. From his concerns of human interaction (fig. 27), to his debate with the Group f.64 (fig. 28), his approach to controversy gives us a range from serious thought to wry humor.

These are but a few examples of the range of Mortensen's work. When we look at the incredible number of images used to illustrate his books and Camera Craft articles, we find a staggering output somewhere over 300 images.12 These don't include the ones used in other publications or his unpublished photographs. If one were looking only at a straight printer's work this would not be very impressive. However, in considering the handwork done on each print, this becomes an amazing feat when multiple prints of one image are taken into account.13

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth—at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”
Pablo Picasso

Mortensen's legacy rides on three important factors. The first involves his technique—all the procedures that he used to force a discussion about the nature of the photograph. The second concerns his approaches to this subject matter. The third, which will be the subject of Part III of this essay, investigates his writings about photography. The remainder of this essay will discuss points one and two.

Mortensen's work forms both a counter to photography's movement towards a purist philosophy and technical approach, and a challenge to the way the photograph as an object is perceived. In a sense, his response to purism drove him to a more extreme departure from the photograph that looks like a photograph.

The movement to make a photograph look like another technique of art had gone out of style about 15 years before Mortensen began his work. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and Paul Strand (1890-1976) had repudiated the photograph-as-painting as early as 1917.14 Mortensen was aware of the arguments upholding a rejection of those techniques used in early pictorialism. His argument in favor of non-straight methods had nothing to do with strategies of photography-as-painting. Instead he looked toward other photographic processes as tools to create the desired image. He didn't copy the look of painting or etching, rather he utilized the theories and approaches used in painting.15 Mortensen felt that what the camera saw was the beginning of the process and whatever interventions the artist took to complete the idea was fair game.16 This is a very important distinction between the approaches of early pictorialism and William Mortensen. He always saw his process as undeniably photographic and the end result as a photograph. He absolutely did not want his work to resemble other processes.17

We must then look to his photographs—which do not upon first glance look like photographs—as a purposeful style conceived to create controversy. He constructed his photographs to be photographs, but to be as opposite in technique from the look of conventional straight photography as he could make them. Mortensen said, "However reprehensible morally, the doctrine that the ends justifies the means is certainly true and valid aesthetically. No limitations may be laid upon the use of technical aids, other than that they must not manifestly violate the essential quality of the medium" (my italics).18 This would put him in a position to call upon the viewer to question the basic nature of what constituted a photograph.

This is a revolutionary concept, for it calls into question not appropriate technical processes, or questions of good or bad subject matter, but instead challenges the fundamental way we perceive a photograph. It replaces the past pictorialists' use of camouflage strategies to make a photograph look like a painting in order to gain acceptance. Mortensen instead creates an intentional confusion in the mind of the viewer about what he/she is really looking at.

This formulates a different and equally important theory as the one proposed by straight photography—that photography must remain true to its representational nature to claim its place as an art. His work goes beyond the argument of whether what we see in the photograph is fact or fiction.19 It makes the photograph itself the subject and asks if what we see before us is a photograph or a canard.20

However, before the viewer could consider these complex possibilities, his attention had to be gotten. Mortensen used the subject matter depicted to entice the viewer into looking at his image. This accounts for his theories put forth in The Command To Look and it freed him to follow his own interests, taking as controversial a course as he wished. Indeed, the more controversial the subject matter in the photograph, the more it called attention to itself, and the better his ploy worked.21

“All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.”
Edgar Allen Poe

Mortensen's work created a world that was his own, yet referenced popular culture and the histories of biography and art. And, like his technical approach, his subject matter and the theory behind it, was always seemingly in direct opposition with those put forth by advocates of straight photography.22

A look at the genres that most interested him would give us a helpful insight and provide new understanding for what he chose and the possible reasons of why he used them.23 We will in turn take a brief look at his nudes, character studies, peasants, grotesques, and also his approach to formalist structure.

The subject matter in his photographs is almost always figurative. He shot little in the way of landscapes, still lifes, or architecture. His primary focus was people. Rarely, except for his commercial portraits, are his subjects ever depicted as they were or who they were. They almost always referenced a historical or fictional personality.24

His best nudes are faceless studies of light and tonality (figs. 29, 30, 31). Or, they are a tour de force of technique that questions the genesis of the subject (fig. 32). As a group, his nudes are spare in composition and sometimes ironic in tone.

The most plausible explanation for the quantity of nudes might be correlated with the gender of the majority of his students—men. His school existed for the professional interested in learning his techniques and the hobbyist who wished to better himself. One inducement was the opportunity of photographing a female nude.

Mortensen's nudes changed with the times. In the 1920's they were Art Nouveau in feel (fig. 33). When we look at the nudes from the 1930's they appear more modern in form and composition (fig. 34). Changes in his depiction of the nude after WWII seem governed by returning soldiers' exposure to the pin-up. The GI bill, which Mortensen's school could accept, must have added to this change (fig. 35).

His character studies, like the nudes, changed over time. During the 1920's Mortensen's access to actors and film themes led to character studies based on those influences. Though as artistic as they are, they mostly represent publicity shots. Also, the influence of Arthur Kales, his bromoil mentor, was strong and the sharing of props and models is apparent (figs. 36, 37).

Using his wife Myrdith and his collaborator George Dunham as his primary models, his approach to character study changed in the 1930's. Even though they were still of a historic or fictional basis, they took on a new attitude as Mortensen explored more psychological themes. He became interested in portraying the personality of the character as opposed to a scenario of an actor in a costume. Like the grotesques, they can have the feeling of something slightly disturbing (figs. 38, 39, 40, 41).

The depictions of peasants appear to have begun after his move to Laguna Beach in 1931. Of all the genres that Mortensen explored, this is the most difficult to explain. They seem out of place compared to his other subjects. It might have been an interest in creating an allegorical statement about the lost bounty created by the dust bowl (1934). Or, more simply, he may have just liked the genre (Figs. 42, 43, 44).

The grotesque images are his most compelling. The grotesque was, like most of the themes that he used, pulled as much from art history as it was from popular culture. Film, as said before, had a large impact on the way Mortensen structured his imagery. He owed as much to Goya as he did to Lon Chaney, Sr. (1883-1930).

He was the first photographer to explore that traditional art subject matter. We look at his images now and find them mild, but in the context of the 1930's, they were as horrific and as unsettling as Joel Peter Witkins' work today.25 They form an important connection to this art genre and expand its realm through references to film, the premiere media of popular culture (figs. 45, 46, also figs. 12, 21, 22).

Mortensen was always interested in and aware of the impact of formalist, compositional elements. There is a tension between what he chose as a subject, usually symbolic or romantic, and how he structured the space, using simple, modernist compositional approaches (fig. 47, 48, 49, 50). We especially see the influences of art teacher Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922) in Mortensen's thoughts. Although now forgotten, Dow's book Composition was highly influential on American modern art.26 And as one reads it, the influences on Mortensen's work become apparent.27

Mortensen's work is difficult, especially when considered in the context of 80 years of straight photography and the accompanying rhetoric surrounding and supporting it. Only since the 1960's have photographers begun to re-examine issues brought up by him: a photograph need not be an unaltered representation of reality; any technique may be employed by artists in the pursuit of creating their photographic art; that the fact-based expectations we have toward photography may be subverted to make a fictionalized image seem real; and that photography is, after all, only one more tool for artists to use to present their vision of the world.

There is more. Mortensen left behind written theories and admonitions to all photographers. These theories were developed for many reasons, but primarily as an alternative to those put forth by straight photography. It is these writings that will be discussed in Part III of this essay (January 2002 issue).

Erratum: My deepest thanks goes to Ralph Hosenpud for pointing out that the picture I put forth as Greta Garbo (in Part I, June issue) was probably not her—he was right. Also, he pointed out that Mortensen was one of two photographers on the King Of Kings. Ralph suggested that Mortensen may have talked DeMille into letting him shoot with a small format camera during the action. A first photographer would still have been used to shoot publicity stills with a large format camera. I checked the original press book for the film and this is what is listed, "Still pictures by Thomas and Mortenson" (sic).

Also thanks go to Ted Harper for letting me know that I mixed up the titles of figures 3 and 4.

Image above: "Pouring Milk" (detail), William Mortensen, Collection of Robert Balcomb. A full version of this image can be seen in this issue HERE. For more details about this Pigment Process, see the Mortensen feature in the June issue of TheScreamOnline.

NOTES:

1. In William Mortensen: A Revival, p. 87, even A. D. Coleman says, "One risk for me in speaking up for Mortensen's right to an acknowledged place in the medium's history, of course, is that I might be cast as an unequivocal admirer of Mortensen's photographs, perhaps even as one who values Mortensen's photographic work over that of Adams, Weston, Van Dyke, and the other members of the purist faction. That's simply not the case. Most of Mortensen's work has, for me, little more than a period appeal. On the basis of what I've seen over the years—and keeping in mind that no comprehensive set exists—there are perhaps two dozen images that stand the test of time: several of the grotesques, some nudes and portraits, half a dozen of the staged scenarios, a few still lifes...." (BACK)

2. A. D. Coleman begins these arguments in William Mortensen: A Revival, pp. 87-88, and I think they bear closer examination, an issue we'll explore in Part 3 of this essay. (BACK)

3. "It must be confessed that it takes considerable skill to produce the best kind of lies. It is in the hands of first-class photographers only—and perhaps the indifferent ones—that photography can lie." Henry Peach Robinson, "Paradoxes of Art, Science, and Photography," Wilson's Photographic Magazine, Vol. 29, pp. 242-45, Photographers On Photography, Edited by Nathan Lyons, (Prentice-Hall, Inc. New Jersey), 1966, p. 84. (BACK)

4. "It is time, then, for it [photography] to return to its true duty, which is to be the servant of the sciences and arts—but the very humble servant, like printing or shorthand, which have neither created nor supplemented literature." Charles Baudelaire, "The Modern Public and Photography," Art In Theory; 1815-1900, Edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood with Jason Gaiger, (Blackwell Publishers Ltd., Oxford, England), 1998, p. 668. In this 1856 essay, Baudelaire goes on to set the fair use of photography as a way to record, archive, or "provide information" for the naturalist, astronomer, and so on. His fear was in the exact mechanical record supplanting or replacing the very human act of creating beauty, "... each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams, but what he sees." p. 668. (BACK)

Even those who announced the invention of the daguerreotype saw photography at the service of science and art. When one reads Daguerre, (Winter House LTD, New York), 1971, with an introduction by Beaumont Newhall, of "The Report" to the Chamber of Deputies 1839, pp. 21-30, by Mr. Arago, we see from the outset that photography was thought of as a new and important adjunct to painters and scientists. This book is a reprint in both French and English of the original papers presented to the Chamber on August 19, 1839, revealing the invention and describing the process of the Daguerreotype. (BACK)

5. For Baudelaire, this was photography's highest calling. (BACK)

6. Art In Theory; 1815-1900, Sir William Newton, "Upon Photography in an Artistic View, and its Relation to the Arts," pp. 652-654. Like Baudelaire, Sir William Newton worries about the painter substituting training in drawing over copying with the photograph. However, he is all for a painter who is already artistically accomplished to use photography as a means of study. See also, Art In Theory; 1815-1900, "The Modern Public and Photography," p. 667, for Baudelaire's less than enthusiastic thoughts of photography's effect on painters. (BACK)

7. William Crawford, The Keepers of the Light: A History & Working Guide To Early Photographic Processes, (Morgan And Morgan Inc., New York) pp. 34-37. The author discusses the early move by Talbot and others to create an "artistic syntax" for photography. (BACK)

8. Aaron Scharf, Art And Photography, (Viking Penguin Books, New York) 1968, 1972, pp. 237-248. Among other things, the author discusses the use of gum-bichromate by photographers in an attempt to create a surface on the paper that looked like the handwork of drawing or painting. For any one interested in photography's effect on art in general I would highly recommend this book. (BACK)

9. William Mortensen, "Meditations of a Reformed Pedagogue," unpublished manuscript, date unknown. Center for Creative Photography Mortensen Archive, AG 147 Box 1, Folder "Writings: Meditations Of A Reformed Pedagogue ND." (BACK)

10. If we take him at his word we know that he worked on The Lover's Oath, sometimes referred to as The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Also, he states he worked on various DeMille films. From when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1921 he may have been involved in Forbidden Fruit (1921) through to Madam Satan (1930), to the time he moved to Laguna Beach. Mortensen states in The Command To Look, p. 11, that he worked in some capacity on every DeMille production over a six-year period. This holds the possibility that he could have worked on any of the 16 DeMille films covered by this period. For a complete Cecil B. DeMille filmography see, Gabe Essoe and Raymond Lee, DeMille: The Man And His Pictures, (Castle Book, New York), 1970, pp. 312-319. The only film that we know for certain that he worked on as a credited still photographer is DeMille's King of Kings in 1926. Some have mentioned that he was still photographer on King Kong, but after inspecting original stills of that film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science Library, I could find no mention of Mortensen's name, nor is his name stamped on any of the photographs. (BACK)

11. In his explanation of "Thunder" in Monsters and Madonnas, Mortensen tells of how he achieved the pose and feeling he wanted from the model. See, A. D. Coleman, Light Readings: A Photography Critic's Writings 1968-1978, "The Directorial Mode: Toward a Definition," (Oxford University Press, New York), 1979, pp. 246-257. See also, Carter Ratcliff, et al, "Tableau Photography: From Mayall to Rodan, Its Roots and Its Reason," Picture, Issue 18, (Gardner/Fulmer Lithograph, California), 1981, pp. 4-48. (BACK)

12. I have gone through all the Camera Craft Publications, the de Langre reprints, and the Simon and Schuster Mortensen on the Negative, and this figure quoted above applies only to finished images. I did not include all the small unidentified illustrative photographs. If included, the number would be over 500 photographs used for illustration! (BACK)

13. I have 3 copies (and I've seen a fourth at CCP) of the photograph "Myrdith Anno 1931." There is line drawing with pencil and the title is printed on the photograph as part of the graphic compositional treatment of the image. The photographic image is the same, yet all four are slightly different! (BACK)

14. Alfred Stieglitz Camera Work; The Complete Illustrations 1903-1917, Camera Work 49/50, Paul Strand, "Photography," pp. 708-709. (BACK)

15. William Mortensen et al, "Venus And Vulcan: An Essay On Creative Pictorialism, Part 3," Camera Craft, (San Francisco), Vol. 41 No. 5, May, 1934, pp. 206-209. Mortensen calls this "the picture idea." See also "Venus and Vulcan: An Essay On Creative Pictorialism, Part 5", Camera Craft, (San Francisco), Vol. 41 No. 7, July, 1934, p. 310. More will be discussed in Part 3 of this essay, about his ideas in "Venus and Vulcan, Part 5," which are in keeping with a 1960's rather than a 1930's approach to art photography. (BACK)

16. Ibid., "Venus and Vulcan, Part 5," pp. 313-314. (BACK)

17. "Those who accuse pictorial photography of being imitative of other graphic arts are misled by superficial or accidental characteristics and show a lack of understanding of the essential quality of the photographic medium. As a matter of fact it would be only by the greatest of effort that photography could be made to remotely resemble etching, and such effort would be vainly and foolishly spent, for photography has its own unique qualities which are unavailable to etcher and painter." "Venus and Vulcan, Part 5," p. 310. (BACK)

18. Ibid., p. 313. (BACK)

19. In the majority of the historical and critical writings about photography that I have read, one issue has always struck me as odd. I find that photography is usually thought of as an "other" in the world of art. By this I mean that photography has tried to separate itself both historically and critically from other art forms. This seems to hold true from the opposite side too. Only recently have major art history tomes begun to mention photography as being part of its history.

I think that Mortensen always saw photography as being one of the arts ("a graphic art"), and so historically indivisible from the general history of art. This is why he so often used the work of artists and photographers as examples. This also explains why he conceptually approached photography like a painter. He formulated images independent of pure fact and strove to create a viable color technique for photography before one was generally available. (BACK)

20. Mortensen understood that his technical approach would be called into question. In a letter, dated 3/29/36, from Mortensen to George Allen Young (the editor of Camera Craft magazine) concerning reproductions in Monsters and Madonnas (Dunham Archive AG 143, Box 1, Folder 2), he says, "There is little enough pure photographic quality in my pictures, God knows; but, such as it is, I want it carefully preserved. These pictures, as reproduced, are neither good photography nor good drawing." Also in a letter from George Dunham (dated 2/25/36, Dunham Archive AG 143, Box 1, Folder 2), once again to George Allen Young, Dunham says in effect that, "Bill doesn't want to make the abrasion tone process too apparent, egging on critics who already think there's too much "non-photographic hocus pocus."

When we think about the ramifications of these 2 letters in the context of his public—written proclamations that what he produces and encourages is always "photographic"—we must conclude that he realized that he was walking along the thin edge of controversy. His point was not to make his work look like drawings or etchings, but to push the bounds of the photograph as art object. (BACK)

21. Indeed, this is the whole point to his book, The Command To Look, (Camera Craft Publishing, San Francisco), 1937. Mortensen sets forth a complete structure for the creation of a photograph that grabs the attention of the viewer. (BACK)

22. When you read the core elements of theories put forth by Weston and Mortensen (and yes, this too will be explored more fully in Part 3) they are surprisingly close. Where they differ the most is in their fundamental approach to the factual basis of photography and the photographic image. Admittedly, this is a huge difference.

Perhaps I'm repeating myself, but this bears repeating because it is the pivotal point of contention between the purists and Mortensen. Mortensen believed, due in large part to his background as a painter, that the end result was the most important thing. Any approach, any technique, any process was fair game in pursuit of the idea. That was what constituted "control" for him—the use of technique to construct a vision, and that is what makes him modern—his manipulation of our expectation of photographic fact in order to create an internal truth and vision.

The purist (or straight) photographer's argument countered that vision. Their theory put forth the concept that photography was about the revelation of external truth or fact. They, through the camera, would reveal the world in an unaltered vision. This, by default, made necessary a technique that was free of alteration or "control." For them, photography's strength came from its untainted revelatory ability. (For the purposes of this discussion we are only looking at this one aspect of straight photography's idiom.) By leaving the subject free of manipulation you could reveal its essential nature. It was left to the photographer to choose what was important subject matter to reveal. What makes them modern is a purity of vision and technique that gives photography the moral authority as the final arbiter in the search for essential truth.

The crux of the difference is this: Mortensen's emphasis was on the formation and construction of an internal truth regardless of external fact. The Purists' emphasis was on the revelation of the essential nature of the world through unaltered, unmitigated representation. (BACK)

23. This is not to imply that every photograph he did was successful. His best and most challenging work was created between 1926-1940. He again returns to the question of what a photograph should look like in the late 40's to mid 50's when he seemed to immerse himself in the Metalchrome process. The Metalchrome images look like color photographs but, then again, the colors feel too saturated—almost like old Technicolor movies, taking on an appearance more like a photo-realistic painting. He developed this process in the 1930's, but the majority of the prints I've seen seem to be from the time span mentioned above. (BACK)

24. As those done for the Los Angeles Times, February 15th and November 1, 1925. Both spreads used silent film stars, one of Dickens characters and one of Harlequin. During this period he also shot photographs for Theater Magazine, Colliers, Sports and Vanities, The Sketch and Vanity Fair in the same vein. See CCP, Mortensen Archive AG 147 Box 8. His two hand-made books from this period also use the character as a theme, The Seven Ages Of Woman, done with actress Lois Moran (1927) and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1925), models' identities unknown, AG 147 Box 4. (BACK)

25. We are all familiar with the attacks leveled by today's politicos against the film industry for their images of violence and gore. We truly are a society jaded by images of horror from the past. We watch the silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, untouched by the strangeness and fright that affected audiences in 1925. In a September 7th, 1925, New York Times review, critic Mordaunt Hall describes the famous unmasking scene, "Then she steals up behind him, as he is apparently entranced by his own playing, and, after hesitating, suddenly snatches the mask from the Phantom's face and at once faints at the horrible ugliness of the man. In the theater last night a woman behind us stifled a scream when this happened, as this is the first glimpse one has of the Phantom's physiognomy. He is hollow-eyed, with a turned-up nose which has long nostrils. His teeth are long and separated and his forehead is high. There is no doubt that he is a reptilian sight." I mention this because I think it important to understand the impact that Mortensen's grotesques had on his audience.

For an interesting look at horror and its influence on popular culture I direct you to Robert Weinberg's Horror Of The 20th Century; An Illustrated History, (Collector's Press, Portland Oregon), 2000. (BACK)

26. Joseph Masheck, "Dow's ‘Way’ to Modernity For Everybody," Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition, (University of California Press, Berkeley), 1997, pp. 1-61. This is a reprint of the 13th edition of Composition dated 1920. It was originally printed in 1899. Masheck writes the introduction to this reprint. (BACK)

27. In fact, one can find many parallels between Dow's book and Mortensen's theories. "Mere accuracy has no art-value whatever. Some of the most pathetic things in the world are pictures or statues whose only virtue is accuracy. The bare truth may be a deadly commonplace." Dow. Ibid., p. 110. (BACK)

Click HERE for a complete list of the images used in this article.

© 2001 Larry Lytle • All rights reserved

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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