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Demons, Imps, and Fay Wray: William Mortensen’s incredible masks
05.16.2017
10:49 am
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‘Salome’ (1924).
 
A chance encounter with big shot director Cecil B. DeMille gave photographer William Mortensen his first job in Hollywood. It was the kind of lucky break that would look hokey as a plot device in a B-movie. Mortensen was working as a gardener but was soon on the set of DeMille’s King of Kings (1927), then designing voodoo masks for Lon Chaney’s movie West of Zanzibar, and then ending-up taking publicity shots and portraits of stars like Marlene Dietrich, Rudolph Valentino, and the original “It girl” Clara Bow.

Before Hollywood, Mortensen had spent his time traveling around Europe in the early 1920s soaking up all that fancy art and culture. He got hep to all the Old Masters like Goya and Rembrandt. This together with his experience of working on films made Mortensen approach photography in a wholly original way.

It was a similar kind of thing that had once happened to writer James Joyce, who had opened the first cinema in Dublin in 1908. Joyce realized traditional story-telling could not compete with movies. Why write a page describing the looks of some lantern-jawed hero when a movie could transmit such information in an instant? Movies taught Joyce to rethink literature—and so he wrote Ulysses.

Mortensen made photographs that mixed painting, drawing, theater, and movies. He manipulated the image to create something more than just a straight photographic representation. His approach was anathema to the more traditionalist photographers like Ansell Adams, who called Mortensen the “anti-Christ” for what he did to photography.

Mortensen produced beautiful, strange, often dark and Gothic, sometimes brutal, though usually erotically charged pictures. While other photographers sought realism, Mortensen used props and gowns and his own vivid imagination to enhance each picture. He went on to have some success but fell out of step with the rise of photojournalism that came out of the Second World War and was (sadly) largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1965. In more recent years, Mortensen has been rightly praised for his photographic genius. What I am intrigued by in Mortensen’s work, is his design and use of masks (including one of “scream queen” Fay Wray) in his photographic work—from which a small selection of which can be seen below.
 
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‘Masked Woman’ (1926).
 
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‘Fay Wray.’
 
More of Mortensen’s masks, after the jump…

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Posted by Paul Gallagher
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05.16.2017
10:49 am
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William Mortensen, the Antichrist of photography
12.15.2016
02:16 pm
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“L’Amour,” probably William Mortensen’s most famous image
 
It’s not many photographers whose works can withstand comparison to Rembrandt and Vermeer, but if there is one, then William Mortensen is that photographer. Debates about the “status” of photography as both neutral recorder of reality and device for exuberant expressions of artifice are as dusty as the question of who “lost” China—it’s both—but Mortensen was decidedly pitched on one end of that debate, on the side of those who would meticulously create an expressive illusion for the purpose of being captured by the lens. Few were greater at that particular skill.

Anton LaVey was a fan, and so was Ansel Adams who called him the “Antichrist.” William Mortensen was clearly no ordinary photographer.

Monsters and Madonnas is the name of a 23-minute documentary narrated by Vincent Price about Mortensen’s life and particularly his stunning work that was completed sometime in the early 1960s.

Born in Utah, William Mortensen spent the formative years of his career in Hollywood working as a still photographer on Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings, among other gigs, before setting up shop in Laguna Beach in 1931. Mortensen’s experiences in the fantasy factory of Hollywood provided a solid starting point for his jaw-dropping exercises in imaginative manipulation. Consciously channeling the Old Masters of centuries past, Mortensen tirelessly executed dozens of astounding portraits and evocative “scenes”—pictures so ravishing that the viewer is often bound to question their status as photographs.

I mentioned Rembrandt and Vermeer. I couldn’t find it on the Internet but it’s shown in Monsters and Madonnas—Mortensen’s portrait “My Father” shows a depth of humanity that is directly reminiscent of Rembrandt’s accomplishments, while his 1938 picture “Pouring Milk” was consciously inspired by Vermeer and netted him the Royal Photographic Society’s coveted Hood Medal—an honor seldom awarded to non-Britons—for photographic work liable to “promote or raise awareness of an aspect of public benefit or service.”
 

“Pouring Milk,” ca. 1938
 
In Mortensen’s work one also sees something of Norman Rockwell’s ability to represent abstract notions vividly and charmingly, and several of Mortensen’s pictures put me in the mind of the whimsical expressive busts of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt (which if you haven’t seen, go look). As Vincent Price says, Mortensen’s pictures “show what photography is capable of achieving.”

In his time in Hollywood, Mortensen photographed portraits of many stars, including Jean Harlow, Rudolf Valentino, Clara Bow and so on; meanwhile, his later photographic work required so much in dramatic facial expression that several of his models later found success as actors, including Deborah Kerr, Rock Hudson, and Charles Coburn. In the documentary, frequent subject Jeanne Crain, who was nominated for the Academy Award in 1949 but is no longer much remembered, is on hand to testify to Mortensen’s respect for artistic history and appetite for hard work.

Mortensen was clearly a genius—while much of his subject matter was lurid—see “The Vampire” and “Slave Girl”—his classicism and rigor prevented his works, which included many nudes, from feeling exploitative in the slightest. The Mortensen School of Photography, founded in 1931, ushered many hundreds of students into the world of artistic photography.
 
Many more stunning Mortensen images after the jump…...

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Posted by Martin Schneider
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12.15.2016
02:16 pm
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American Grotesque: William Mortensen, Photographer as ‘Antichrist’
10.21.2014
05:04 pm
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This is a guest post from Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey regarding two fascinating new books related to photographer William Mortensen.

Now that smartphones have become the camera of choice, it seems strange that photographers once belonged to divergent schools that battled one another, and sometimes quite viciously at that. The style that integrated painterly techniques with film technology was called Pictorialism. The “modernists” who dismissed complex photo techniques called themselves Group f/64 before they enlarged their influence, ultimately becoming known as “Purists.” For the Purists, sharp focus was the only natural way to photograph an image, and nature itself was the preferred subject.

Purists like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston did brilliant work in their careers, but it seemed important to them to remove Pictorialism from textbooks, galleries and museums. Their bête noire was none other than William Mortensen, who had for decades published many instructional manuals and reproduced his work in major photo magazines of the time, most notably Camera Craft. Mortensen specialized in a style that emphasized a grotesque look, which tended to feature many nudes. Compared to the trees and mountainsides that Ansel Adams shot, Mortensen’s work was accused of being exploitative and distasteful.

Purist hate was so intense that Adams even referred to Mortensen as “the antichrist.”

I had first heard of Mortensen from Anton LaVey, who had a photograph called “Fear” hanging in his Black House kitchen. In this photo a distressed woman is enveloped by a black-cloaked demonic entity. Anton acknowledged that Mortensen’s book The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze changed his life, teaching him the basics of what he called “Lesser Magic.” LaVey also co-dedicated The Satanic Bible to Mortensen.

When Photoshop techniques and manipulated digital photography took hold in recent decades, the Pictorialist style once again became quite prominent though by then the Purists had long ago successfully bounced Mortensen out of public recognition. This was the reason I found it important to publish both Mortensen’s The Command To Look, which also includes Michael Moynihan’s article on Mortensen’s influence on occult researcher Manly Palmer Hall and Anton LaVey. We have also published a Mortensen monograph called American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen, that includes an illuminating biography by Larry Lytle, a great deal of heretofore unpublished images and Mortensen’s textual battles with Purists from photo magazines. We hope that this evidence of William Mortensen’s brilliance once again revives his reputation and cements his rightful place in the history of the Photographic Arts.

—Adam Parfrey.

Here are some examples of William Mortensen’s work from American Grotesque
 

“Fear” aka “Obsession”
 

“A Family Xmas, 1914” 1932
 

“The Strapado”
 

“Belphagor”
 
More Mortensen after the jump…

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Posted by Richard Metzger
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10.21.2014
05:04 pm
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