AMERICA's FIRST SUPERSTAR PHOTOGRAPHER
HERE IS ALL YOU NEED TO DO-
Mix myth and celebrity in iconic fashion
so folk will not know which is fraud
and which is fashion.Claim higher art
as a pretext for depicting animal lust.
Hollywood will love you best-in black and white
you sell sepia and silver.Images of witches
and of ritual.Classical inferences from
King Kong to Beauty and the Beast/
from Nosferatu to vampire horror flicks.
World is made of image/made for images
such as these-and those who sell will score
The Photographer Who Ansel Adams Called the Anti-Christ
William Mortensen’s grotesque, retouched photos of celebrities were a far cry from the realism favored by the photography elite
By Bess Lovejoy
In 1937, the photographer Edward Weston wrote Ansel Adams a letter noting that he had recently "got a beautiful negative of a fresh corpse." Adams wrote back expressing his enthusiasm, saying, "It was swell to hear from you—and I look forward to the picture of the corpse. My only regret is that the identity of said corpse is not our Laguna Beach colleague." The "colleague" Adams referred to was William Mortensen, one of the most popular and otherwise respected photographers of the 1930s, whose artistic techniques and grotesque, erotic subject matter saw him banished from "official" histories of the art form. For Adams, Mortensen was enemy number one; he was known to describe him as "the anti-Christ."
Born in Park City, Utah, in 1897, Mortensen studied painting in New York City before World War I, then moved to Hollywood in the 1920s, where he worked with filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille and shot portraits of celebrities Rudolph Valentino, Fay Wray, Peter Lorre, Jean Harlow and others, often in historical costume. He also created more abstract portraits of anonymous models, interpreting historical or mythological characters such as Circe, Machiavelli and Cesar Borgia, and shot images of witchcraft, monsters, torture and Satanic rituals, rarely shying away from nudity or blood. Despite his outlandish themes, between the 1930s and 1950s his images were widely shown both in America and abroad, published in magazines including Vanity Fair, and collected by the Royal Photographic Society in London. He wrote a series of bestselling instructional books and a weekly photography column in the Los Angeles Times, and ran the Mortensen School of Photography in Laguna Beach, where some 3,000 students passed through the doors. The artist and photography scholar Larry Lytle, who has done extensive research on Mortensen, calls him "photography's first superstar."
Yet Mortensen has been left out of most retrospectives and books devoted to the history of photography until relatively recently. In the late 1970s and 1980s, his work was rediscovered by the photo critic A. D. Coleman, and the collector, curator, and writer Deborah Irmas. Their work has helped bring Mortensen back to popular attention, an effort that seems to culminate this fall with gallery exhibits in New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, as well as the release of a major book on Mortensen. American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen (Feral House) features previously unpublished images alongside essays by Lytle, the writer and musician Michael Moynihan, and A.D. Colemen. Feral House has also republished Mortensen’s instructional book The Command to Look, in which he analyzes his process and technique, offering tips about how to arrange compositions and create maximum impact.
American Grotesque is a lavish retrospective of grotesque, occult, and erotic images by the forgotten Hollywood photographer William Mortensen (1897–1965).