William Mortensen (1897 - 1965) was one of the most well known and respected photographers in America in the thirties. He worked primarily in Southern California as a Hollywood and studio portraitist and later taught his methods and ideas to younger generations. (See Larry Lytle's online biography of Mortensen.) Mortensen's obscurity today is mainly due to his championing of Pictorialism, a force within photography that promoted retouching, hand-worked negatives, chemical washes, and an artistic, painterly approach that soon faded with the advance of modernism.
William Mortensen, Machiavelli. One of many historical themes by Mortensen which made him reviled among modernist photographers and excluded from the history books.
Camera Work (1903 - 1917) was an influential photography periodical founded by Alfred Stieglitz. Within its pages the struggle for "photography as art" was debated along with the principles of Pictorialism and Modernism. Camera Work's last issue featured the photo work of Paul Strand, and soon after the "straight photograph" held dominance, especially with the advance of fast lenses, reportage, and compact cameras. Camera Work faded into history as interest waned and Stieglitz no longer felt it represented the future direction of photography.
William Mortensen, L'Amour
"SEX is of course the subject interest, which is here given additional morbid pungency by the sadistic implications of the theme." -- Mortensen
As Pictorialism's influence was fading, it was kept alive to the public through camera clubs, amateur photography salons, magazines, and a few die-hard professionals such as William Mortensen, who kept up with exhibitions, publications, and spreading knowledge through teaching the difficult hand-worked techniques of the late-nineteenth century.
William Mortensen, Human Relations - 1932
"Hatred is frequently the emotion that lies behind grotesque art... These were the days when stocks were stopping dividends, when lives of thrift and industry were being wiped out by the foreclosing of mortgages and the closing of banks, when Japan was carving herself a large slice of China. Everywhere there was the spirit of 'Take what you can, and to hell with your neighbor.' Those who were strong seemed to be, in sheer wantonness, gouging the eyes of humanity." -- Mortensen
Mortensen was considered an anachronism in photography, an outsider in a field that rejected the theatrical set-ups, retouching and strong imaginative subject matter. Ansel Adams, high priest of the straight print, described Mortensen as both "the devil" and "the anti-Christ." Historians seem to have sided with Adams, as there are few mentions of Mortensen in most of the major photo histories.
William Mortensen, Preparation for the Sabbot
"Herein lies the reason for the equivocal effect of grotesque art on many people: the material is unfamiliar, and, by ordinary standards, unpleasant: yet it calls forth a deep instinctive response. Thus they are torn between repulsion and attraction..." -- Mortensen
William Mortensen, Belphegor
"There are several curious books -- notably "Le Dragon Rouge" and "Le Grand Grimoire" -- which contain detailed portraits of many of these demons." -- Mortensen. WM had a strong interest in the Occult and planned to photograph an encyclopedia of Demons, Witchcraft, and Sorcery practices, from which this portrait of Belphegor is an example.
In "Venus and Vulcan" -- a series of 1934 Camera Craft magazine essays -- Mortensen defended Pictorialism against criticism from the f.64 school and other "straight shooters":
Photography, like any other art, is a form of communication. The artist is not blowing bubbles for his own gratification, but is speaking a language, is telling somebody something. Three corollaries are derived from this proposition.
a. As a language, art fails unless it is clear and unequivocal in saying what it means.
b. Ideas may be communicated, not things.
c. Art expresses itself, as all languages do, in terms of symbols 
slipcase of William Mortensen's Monsters & Madonnas
Mortensen's book Monsters & Madonnas, published in 1936, was a distilled manifesto of his thoughts and a response to the dominance of straight photography. Mortensen saw duality at work in the process of all artistic production. The technical, mechanical, and scientific were entwined yet at odds within the creative impulse. This duality was even more concentrated in photography, a process obsessed by the technical and mechanical "Monster." Mortensen saw the scientific "Threat of the Machine" -- The Monster -- standing beside its ancient antithesis, The Madonna -- "a symbol of fruitfulness and growth, of life and creative energy." 
Advertisement for William Mortensen's Monsters & Madonnas
As Mortensen proposed, the great problem and question in the arts was to "bridge the gap" or harmonize the mechanical and creative through technique. Monsters & Madonnas suggests a mastery and simplification of all mechanical techniques -- "Through technique, the mechanical is bent to the needs of the creative. In this sense of the word, most photographers completely lack technique. Many have acquired mechanical skill, some have creative ability; but few have managed to bridge the gap between the two." 
William Mortensen, The Heretic
"If the inquisitors still failed to find the evidence they sought or to extract a confession, she was subjected to the additional persuasion of torture. After being given certain preliminary tortures, she was strung up and given the final opportunity to confess and recant. This is the moment represented in The Heretic." --Mortensen
In the last section of the essay, Mortensen concentrates on "Releasing the Imagination" and offers up study of crystallization, geometry, and specialization as "potential channels of Will-to-Form." He describes the creative imagination as something eternal that connotes an "active power that demands creative outlet... Even the death of the individual cannot destroy the imagination, for that which is clearly and strongly imagined partakes of eternity." 
William Mortensen, Johan the Mad
"By her crazy tragic journey through the kingdoms of Europe, bearing with her the corpse of her beloved husband, she has come to be a symbol and prototype of the tortured quest for something irrevocably lost." -- Mortensen
Mortensen mentions strengthening the imagination through free improvisation, control, and self-discipline. To learn photography is to find your own way in silence and solitude. For Mortensen, "The Monster" is also a reference to the logical, conscious mind, always in battle with the imagination. His last rule for taming the monster is to surround yourself with finer things. "Hearing great music, seeing great pictures, reading great books, we gradually lose a little of the smallness and cheapness from our souls, and draw nearer to those deep eternities wherein all arts are one." 
William Mortensen, Pit and the Pendulum
"... we are inevitably drawn by that which we fear, and cannot take our eyes from that which terrorizes us...Realism for its own sake is a blind alley... When the world of the grotesque is known and appreciated, the real world becomes vastly more significant." -- Mortensen
In his second book, The Command to Look: A Formula for Picture Success, Mortensen describes his history and relationship to photography and puts down a series of lessons for obtaining "pictorial impact." In Mortensen's view it is a combination of sex, sentiment, and wonder that constitute the subject of interest in a picture. Combined with impact, they produce a lasting work of art. "The picture must command you look at it... It is this quality that I have designated as 'the pictorial imperative.'" 
William Mortensen, The Vampire
"...some have suggested that the fear of death is the basic motive of all art, driving men to to try to immortalize a little of themselves in material more enduring then the flesh..." -- Mortensen
Mortensen's best work has combined his virtuoso techniques to produce a series of "grotesques" -- strange and weird caricatures of an extreme nature. These works often combine the subjects of beauty and monstrosity in delightful and seductive ways. His proximity to Hollywood and past training as an on-set photographer kept his imagination strong and involved with theatrical and directorial photography.
William Mortensen, The Priestess
"the theme is WONDER -- the cruel, absolute inscrutable mystery of the LAW. The implications of the theme are borne out by the ponderous pyramidal form of the Impact." -- Mortensen
Mortensen's ideas are simple and at first glance seem entirely outdated -- but with the advance of digital photography and the postmodern turn, we see that photography has retraced its roots in the painterly and hand manipulated direction. This loop has again set us on a path where science has released new "Monsters" from which creative desire can spring. Since its beginnings, photography has dealt with tension between the real and artificial, the mechanical and creative -- that is its cross and raison d'etre.
William Mortensen, Death of Hypatia
"Note the quality of contemplative passivity lifts the picture above the merely episodic, and makes this moment much more menacing than it would have been had the figures been actively engaged in fighting and clawing at each other." -- Mortensen
We are constantly revising and reconsidering what was once reviled. The pure "straight photograph" has never existed, as every photograph is an illusion based on reality. Only those images that have commanded our attention with their "creative impact" have remained with us as eternal works of art. Mortensen reminds us of the creative power of photography -- and commands us to look.
-- Cary Loren
 The struggle for "photography as art" was not between three strands of photography -- it is a struggle for understanding the medium and how it stands within the field of art. Pictorialsim was a "painterly" approach and the "straight print" avoided any soft focus or darkroom technique. Both approaches were shown in Camera Work. The battle for "Photography as Art" in Camera Work was made apparent in the essays of Sadakichi Hartmann, who was a kind of critical bridge between Pictorialism and Modernism. (Photographers such as Robert Demachy, Edward Steichen and Clarence White were debated in his Camera Work writings.)
 William Mortensen, "Venus and Vulcan 5 - A Manifesto and a Prophecy," Camera Craft 41, n. 6 (July 1934): 310-12. As quoted in A. D. Coleman, "Conspicuous by His Absence: Concerning the Mysterious Disappearance of William Mortensen" in Coleman, Depth of Field (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1998). In the first essay of the wishfully-titled catalog "William Mortensen: A Revival" (Center for Creative Photography, 1998) Michael Dawson quotes Mortensen in an unpublished essay listing his four most major figures in American photography as Arnold Genthe, Edward Weston, Man Ray, and Alfred Stieglitz. Mortensen goes on to say that "the apex of photography can only be reached by the pictorialist: the man whose interest is in the picture itself."
 William Mortensen, Monsters and Madonnas: A Book of Methods (Camera Craft, 1936), opening essay.
 William Mortensen, The Command to Look: A Formula for Picture Success (Camera Craft, nd.), p. 37.
William Mortensen, Black Magic
A two page spread from The Command to Look.
"...the eye is jerked by a series of abrupt zig-zags up to the startling and ferocious climax of the face." -- Mortensen
William Mortensen, Circe
"The prevalence of this elusive ovoid motive emphasizes the suggestion of intangibility and unreality." -- Mortensen
William Mortensen, The Warlock
"This is a WONDER theme, of course -- the Supernatural -- the world of demons and witches." -- Mortensen
William Mortensen, The Possessed
"The WONDER theme of the terror that howls in barren places is expressed in the wind that sweeps through this picture. Before it everything writhes and dissolves; Nature disintegrates into nightmare." -- Mortensen
This article was written by Cary Loren and originally published at A Journey Around My Skull. Click the view button below to read more