William Mortensen, Photography's Antichrist / by Chris Hall

William Mortensen, Off For the Sabbot, 1927

William Mortensen (1897 – 1965) was one of the most well known and respected photographers in America in the 1930's.  He worked primarily in Southern California as a Hollywood movie studio  portraitist, but later taught his methods and ideas to a new generation of younger photographers.  Mortensen championed Pictorialism, a movement within photography that promoted retouching, hand-worked negatives, chemical washes, and an artistic, painterly approach, standing in opposition to the straight shooting aesthetics of the Modernist-Realist school, as exemplified by Ansel Adams.  

Ansel Adams, and others in the Modernist-Realist school, rejected theatrical set-ups, retouching, and strong, imaginative subject matter, all the things which Mortensen stood for.  Mortensen had an ongoing written debate with Adams in photography magazines, which lead to him being ostracized from the more authoritative canons of photographic history.  Ansel Adams held so much animosity toward Mortensen, that he variously referred to him as “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.” Adams' approach would eventually win out and Mortensen was considered an anachronism and an outsider in the art world.  After World War II, photographers began to favor the straight shooting, Modernist-Realist approach, becoming a documentarian of preexisting situations rather than a creator of new ones.  William Mortensen soon faded into obscurity.  

“Even the death of the individual cannot destroy the imagination, for that which is clearly and strongly imagined partakes of eternity."  William Mortensen

In recent years, William Mortensen has returned to the public's consciousness; Feral House has just published a book of his photographs.  Mortensen's work is imaginative and weird, celebrating sexuality and the grotesque.  Mortensen recognized the power that sexuality and the grotesque has on the imagination of the viewer, and he applied both tactics liberally to his work.  On the grotesque, Mortensen wrote:

"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..." 

Perhaps the most striking of all of Mortensen's works is his 1932 piece, Human Relations.  Of Human Relations, Mortensen would write late in life:

"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."