Over the course of the past eighty years or so, photographer William Mortensen has been recognized as a groundbreaking technician, discredited as a hack, and canonized as a cult icon. It’s a strange journey that began in glamorous 1920s Hollywood and has included such figures as Fay Wray in the role of ingénue, Ansel Adams as villain, and Anton LaVey as champion. All this is set dressing for Mortensen’s body of work: a decadent catalog of witches, monsters, starlets, and freaks that titillate and terrify by turns. Feral House’s lavish art book, American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen, released in 2014 and edited by Larry Lytle and Michael Moynihan, provides a detailed look at this eccentric artist who has been all but erased from the history of photography. Published alongside a lovingly restored edition of Mortensen’s instructional manual-cum-philosophical treatise, The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze, the book provides convincing evidence to justify a reassessment of the photographer’s work.
Mortensen’s career found him working alongside key figures in early Hollywood, with time spent working on the sets of films by Cecil B. DeMille and Tod Browning as well as photographing luminous screen stars like Jean Harlow, Rudolph Valentino, and Clara Bow. For a time, the photographer was legal guardian to fourteen-year-old Fay Wray, freshly arrived in Tinseltown from Salt Lake City. By all accounts a colorful, charismatic figure, Mortensen’s subjects tended towards the exotic and provocative. He published a book of photographs based on The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1925) and created over 150 images for a planned book on the history of witchcraft (early 1930s). By the 1940s, Mortensen’s key focus was on artistic and Romantic—if admittedly naughty—nudes.
The painterly chiaroscuro that characterizes Mortensen’s photographs was achieved through the extensive manipulation of the developing and printing processes. This darkroom sorcery earned Mortensen a devoted following in the 1920s and 1930s, resulting in a lucrative business licensing his name to photography chemicals, kits, and lighting rigs while authoring instructional tomes. Mortensen’s unique writing style (developed with co-author and model George Dunham) combined practical know-how with philosophical journeys into the realms of aesthetics and audience experience. The most famous of these publications is The Command to Look, a theoretical essay on ways that the photographer’s art can manipulate the emotions of his audience using a “Formula for Picture Success.” A combination of composition elements (the diagonal, the S-curve, the triangle combination, and the dominant mass), subject themes (sex, sentiment, and wonder/fear), and strategies to hold the viewer’s interest, Mortensen’s theory is outlined in a brash and frequently humorous tone that complements the strange and alluring photographs that illustrate the artist’s philosophy. Far from acting as high-minded critiques of fine art, Mortensen’s books combine a craftsman’s eye for process with a genuine desire to delight his audience. It’s an approach that is somehow simultaneously populist and bordering on the occult.
This combination of photo-manipulation and commercial appeal would ultimately spell Mortensen’s downfall. Considered a symbol of the “pictorialist” school of photography, Mortensen’s style came into direct conflict with the “purist” photographers whose influence dominated American photography beginning in the early 1940s. While it might seem this is a simple case of the time-worn battle between so-called “fine art” and “popular art,” American Grotesque presents a more insidious cause for Mortensen’s exclusion from the history of photography. The book argues that Ansel Adams, known for his majestic images of natural beauty, spearheaded a seemingly personal campaign to ensure that Mortensen was removed from the artistic record. Adams not only curated his own exhibits that deliberately excluded Mortensen’s work, he went so far as to use his influence to suppress exhibits of Mortensen’s photographs at other institutions. Evidence of the poisonous nature of Adams’ opinion on Mortensen is front and center on the cover of American Grotesque where he is quoted: “For us, Mortensen was the Anti-Christ.”
This vendetta against Mortensen could have spelled the end of his cultural impact, but fate would prove otherwise. The provocative nature of Mortensen’s imagery meant that his books were reprinted well into the late 1960s, the market for horror and nudity being an evergreen one. One reader who encountered Mortensen’s work during the photographer’s slow slip into obscurity was a teenage Anton LaVey. LaVey would go on to employ a number of Mortensen’s strategies as outlined in The Command to Look in the development of the Church of Satan. It’s easy to find evidence of Mortensen’s aesthetic—a combination of dreamy sexuality, nightmarish grotesquerie, and kitschy sentimentality—in the golden era of LaVey’s organization. Simultaneously serious in intent and tongue-in-cheek in detail, the influence of Mortensen is explicitly recognized in the dedication of The Satanic Bible. Feral House’s reprint of The Command to Look includes an extensive essay detailing the connection between LaVey’s and Mortensen’s philosophies written by Michael Moynihan, a showpiece in the already impressive restoration of the book.
A significant portion of the appeal of an art book rests in its physical presentation, and American Grotesque has been given a sumptuous hand feel. Printed on heavy, glossy stock and featuring full-page reproductions of scores of Mortensen’s photographs, this weighty tome is a delight to hold. Oversized books can be taxing to read, but special care has been taken to balance large-format art reproductions with remarkably legible typesetting. The painstaking biography, multi-source academic critique, and selected essays by Mortensen provide a thorough background for the carefully curated imagery at the heart of the book.
Multiple factors combine to make Mortensen’s work relevant in the present. The proliferation of artists working with photographic manipulation means that the “purist” philosophy of photography is but one of many possible approaches to the medium. This, combined with the ease of image sharing via various internet platforms, re-contextualizes Mortensen as a man “ahead of his time” in terms of subject matter and style. While it would be premature to state that Mortensen’s contributions to the history of photography will be reappraised, the publication of American Grotesque is an important step towards bringing the artist’s work out of the shadowy realm of traded photocopies and underground word-of-mouth.
Written by: Tenebrous Kate
Publisher: Feral House (United States)
Edited by: Michael Moynihan; Larry Lytle (American Grotesque)
Published: November 25, 2014
File Under: Art / Art History / Photography
ISBN: 1936239973 (American Grotesque); 1627310010 (The Command to Look)
Pages: 300 (American Grotesque); 190 (The Command to Look)
Format: Hardcover (American Grotesque); Paperback (The Command to Look)