Shadow Forms: The Art and Philosophy of William Mortensen
Opening Reception: Friday, March 10, 2023, 5:30-7:00pm RSVP
On View: March 10 - March 31, 2023
Regular Exhibit Hours: Tuesday-Friday 12:00-6:00pm, and by appointment (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PRS is pleased to present an exhibition of images by William Mortensen (1897-1965), an American photographer whose body of work ranged from portraits of Hollywood’s Golden Age stars (Fay Wray, Rudolph Valentino, Norma Shearer, Clara Bow, Ramon Navarro) to gothic, occult-inspired, and erotic or gory images.
Mortensen stood in staunch opposition to the realist or ‘purist’ movement in photography, which was ascendent in his day, and his striking images are a testament to his singular approach. He was far more concerned with the psychological and emotional impact of images than with their fidelity to reality, and he devoted considerable thought to the ways that an artist’s decisions regarding every element of a photo influence what the image evokes in the viewer, on both a conscious and subconscious level.
As a leader of the Pictorialist school, Mortensen manipulated his images with razor blades, paint brushes, and other tools, resulting in images that resembled etchings or sketches of dreamlike—and sometimes nightmare-like—scenes. The subject matter of these photographs—which included monsters, witchcraft, and sacrifices— in tandem with his innovative technique exerted a provocative and profound effect on the viewer that, in his view, could not be achieved by the ‘cramping’ realism so predominant and acclaimed at the time.
Mortensen’s defiance of convention resulted in much vitriol from his purist contemporaries; Ansel Adams referred to him as ‘the anti-Christ.’ This disdain from such major figures like Adams, Edward Weston, Charis Wilson, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, and Willard Van Dyke eventually resulted in Mortensen’s obscurity, and for generations he and his innovative images were relegated to the status of footnotes in official histories of photography. In recent years, however, there has been a resurgence of interest in and appreciation for Mortensen, his work, and his influence on photography.
During his years in Los Angeles, Mortensen befriended PRS founder Manly Hall. The two had a reciprocal influence on one another; Hall’s deep knowledge of and prolific writings on the esoteric and occult informed Mortensen’s theories about images and choice of subject matter, and Mortensen’s photographic techniques inspired Hall’s own approach to photography, which he practiced during his travels to major cultural sites like Chichen Itza in 1932.
The opening reception of the exhibition at PRS will be followed by a lecture by Larry Lytle, whose scholarship on Mortensen has resulted in numerous articles and two publications by Feral House: American Grotesque: The Life and Work of William Mortensen and a reissuing of Mortensen’s own long-out-of-print The Command To Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze, both on sale at the PRS Bookstore.
Prints of Mortensen’s work will be available for purchase for the duration of the exhibition. View here
Special Thanks to: Jessica Parfrey and Christina Ward at Feral House Publishing, and Larry Lytle.
Overview of Mortensen’s Life and Career by Larry Lytle
William Herbert Mortensen was born to Danish immigrants in Park City, Utah on January 27, 1897, and he died in San Diego, California on August 12, 1965. After a brief period in the army and artistic training in Utah, Manhattan, and Greece, Mortensen moved to Hollywood, where he worked with prominent directors and stars as a photographer as well as an illustrator and mask maker. It was also during this period that Mortensen befriended Manly Palmer Hall, who was an important resource for Mortensen’s photographic series, “A Pictorial History of Witchcraft and Demonology.”
During his Hollywood period, Mortensen’s photographic achievements and innovations gained recognition, and he began to develop techniques that made his photographs look unlike those of other pictorialists. Those methods combined with his nudes, Hollywood portraits, and grotesque imagery became the bases of his notoriety. In the 1930s he expanded his “look” to include a color process, Metal-Chrome along with his longtime use of texture screens, abrasion-tone, bromoil, and paper negatives.
Amateurs, hobbyists and budding commercial photographers clamored for his articles, books and photographs—eagerly poring over these holy tomes and artifacts that offered illumination and enlightenment on the “Mortensen Method.” The Mortensen School of Photography, where he personally taught his processes, became a destination point in Laguna Beach, California. His prints were exhibited in photographic salons seen by thousands around the world; his images were imitated in subject matter and method. Mortensen’s success was as unexpected as it was unprecedented.
As he developed more singular techniques, Mortensen became one of the best-known photographers in the USA, if not the world. His articles (over 100) were published in a variety of photography magazines; his books (nine) were reprinted multiple times, with some in expanded editions. He created a line of photographic products that carried his name, and his school flourished. However, after WWII his work began to fall out of favor. Photography’s subject matter changed, shifting to a more documentary approach and away from the heavily-manipulated photographs of Mortensen. While he was still a factor in the photographic world in the 1950s, his prominence faded. By the time of his death from leukemia in 1965 he was, for the most part, forgotten.
Mortensen’s assault on the trope of the proper photographic image, together with his alchemy-like special effects that transmuted seeming non-photographs into photographs, made him both renowned and despised in the popular photographic culture of the day. Mortensen’s work speaks to a new generation of artists. His books, articles and photographs are much sought after. Mortensen’s photographs of the 1920s and 1930s still exert a unique power and fascination for audiences a hundred years after their creation.
Special Lecture Following Reception:
“American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen” with author Larry Lytle
Friday, March 10, 2023, 7:00-9:00pm
In-Person and Zoom Attendance Available RSVP