William Mortensen: A Revival: The Strange Case of William Mortensen

Discussion in 'Education' started by robert_jones|8, May 28, 2003.

  1. William Mortensen: A Revival.
    Center for Creative Photography, 1998, 136 pp.

    If it weren't for the discussion forums on photo.net, I would have never heard of William Mortensen. So, I must extend my deepest gratitude to those who have kept him alive in spirit on our message boards.

    This collection of essays and photographs marks the first (and hopefully not the last) serious attempt at reviving and redeeming the nearly annihilated and forgotten reputation of the late American photographer, William Mortensen (1897-1965).

    While it is often true that a great artist never lives to see his ship come in, the opposite was true of Mortensen: In the late 1920s through early 1940s, his star was ascending, seemingly without end. Based in Laguna Beach, California, he was photographer to many of Hollywood's most famous, working with such acclaimed figures as Fay Wray, Cecil B. deMille and Marlene Dietrich. While his "pictorialist" style of photography -- painterly and posh, relying on soft-focus and darkroom knowhow to produce luxuriously toned and finished prints -- was favoured by the stars, clearly Mortensen found himself on the wrong side of history when it came to fine arts photography. The new "purist" movement, which celebrated the "straight," unadorned, print and a more documentarian style, was afoot and found no place for the Gothic-inspired Mortensen.

    Except that's not quite the way it happened. For the f/64 group, spearheaded by Ansel Adams and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall (curators with the Museum of Modern Art), it was not enough merely to disagree philosophically with Mortensen. Had they done so, it would have been unlikely that Mortensen would have been forgotten and ignored so during his own lifetime and after his death, for he was something more than just another painterly salon photographer: His compositions were steeped in Gothic and Romantic traditions, his subject matter often whimsical, often bizarre, his style a strange combination of Lorenzo de Bernini, Edgar Allan Poe, Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Maxfield Parrish.

    In his essay, "Beyond Recall," photographer A.D. Coleman -- who is quite sympathetic to the Adams aesthetic -- presents a scathing indictment of Adams and the Newhalls, and their active campaign to completely shut out Mortensen from the elite artistic inner circles. Although he never said so, it is evident from reading these essays that Mortensen died a broken man. Even after Mortensen's death, "Saint Ansel" Adams tried to prevent Mortensen's work from being archived at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Fortunately, for posterity, curator James Enyeart (who, though a friend of Adams) remained objective, and was instrumental in finding a permanent home for Mortensen's artistic legacy.

    Sadly, little remains of his artistic output: Most of Mortensen's negaives are missing, whereabouts unknown. He also left few notes or letters. No conclusions can be drawn, but it is strongly suggested that by the time he died Mortensen felt so irrelevant to the history of photography that he never bothered to leave much behind.

    However, the authors and editors of this handsome book have constructed a strong foundation on which to rebuild Mortensen's reputation. Michael Dawson's essay "William Mortensen: Gothic Modernist" and "William Mortensen and George Dunham: Photography as Collaboration," by Diane Dillon go a long way in providing a narrative to Mortensen's often quiet and secretive life, and in outlining his artistic method (Dunham's collection of prints, articles and memorabilia filled in many of the gaps in the Mortensen archive). However, Dillon's treatment of the Mortensen/Dunham legacy is written entirely through the lens of the "queer theory" perspective. While I don't discount the possibility of a possible sexual relationship between the two collaborators, I think it's a bit overindulgent of the author to try and psychologically project a secret gay life onto Mortensen on what amounts to inference and inuendo at best. What is at best a parenthetical mention or query, worthy of a few paragraphs for sure, becomes an almost desparate attempt to claim Mortensen for the gay camp, as though the purpose of the reader is to keep score in such matters. That said, however, her theory is not without merit, and she does bring to the table much heretofore unknown information about Mortensen.

    The book's only shortcoming is that while it has three excellent essays and a bibliography and chronology that put Mortensen's work in context of the greater photographical history of his time, it is a bit short on photographs. There are only about three dozen plates of his work, which -- while representative -- don't really do full justice to fleshing out his life's work. I would have loved to have seen more of his color portraits and nudes.

    That said, don't let this stop you from buying this book. The printing is first rate, and so is the treatment of its sorely neglected subject. Admirers of William Mortensen can only hope for a more exhaustive book of photographs to be released in the near future.

  2. I had many of his books, though I can now only find "The Command to Look". It captured some ideas that still have value today.
  3. I have published quite a bit of material on William Mortensen in my Internet
    magazine, TheScreamOnline, with articles and galleries by his protege, Robert
    Balcomb, and the emminent Mortensen scholar, Larry Lytle. Use this link to
    view the main feature in the premier issue: http://www.thescreamonline.com/
    photo/photo06-01/mortensen/index.html. Included are WM's original pigment
    process notes, on loan from Mr. Balcomb, which were finally donated to the
    CCP in Arizona. Consult the site map in the magazine where photography
    features for all 14 issues thus far are listed together.

    I am glad that WM has finally come to be recognized for the Master that he
    truly was. In this day and age of the digital camera and Photoshop, it can be
    difficult for some to understand why he was ostracized for work that is now
    so popular, and he was certainly ahead of his time in creating visionary work
    entirely by hand. WM was a lover of the Classics, as is borne out in his paean
    to previous masters in "Monsters and Madonnas." Whilst there are many who
    so hastily rushed to denigrate his work, I doubt that anyone can truly criticize
    the man's sense of composition.
  4. I not only knew Bill Mortensen, I am one of the few practitioners of the Metalchrome process. I have a set of dyes that belonged to Bill, I have several of his brushes including his favorite Bromoil brush. One of Bill's favorites was one he called Woman of Languedoc, his wife, Merdyth being the model. There were three prints made, one bromoil, one pigment, and one metalchrome. The bromoil is in the office of a photo dealer in New York. The only metalchrome is hanging on my wall. After Bill died, a lot of his work went to Jaques De Longre for his attempt to reissue Monsters and Madonnas. The color reproductions were excellent, but the black and white were miserable. It is shocking to see this travesty going on Alibris for $600 a copy, more than the original Monsters and Madonnas. Merdyth (I'm not sure of the spelling) fearing for the safety of Bill's prints asked me to pick them up and return them to her, which I did. At that time, there was a substantial body of Bill's work. To the best of my knowledge, he never threw anything away. Merdyth was getting along in her own years, and told me she was leaving everything to Bill's former secretary except for some material we was giving to the Society of American Photographers.
    As to Bill's "homosexuallity" the reference in the above essay is the only thing I have ever heard about it. He never made a pass at me. After his passing, Merdyth told me that Bill was an avid practioner of the casting couch for the female models in his photographs and every one was selected for her potential as a mistress."That horn dog was never faithful to me a day in his life," was Merdyth's attitude. They were separated several times during their stormy marriage, and each time, another woman was involved. Sure, William Mortensen was gay. Just like John Wayne and Clark Gable.
    Jack Warford
  5. Hello Jack,

    Just found this post only today. A bit late but relevant to what I am up to.

    I have begun experimenting with the Metalchrome process. Any suggestions as to where I might find aniline dyes in the colors needed or a reasonable substitute?

    I appreciate your time.

  6. Does anyone know where to find a copy of this book? I am trying to learn more about William Mortensen. My late father was a student of his for many years -- if you have access to Mortensen's book Pictorial Lighting, my father was the model for 'Fisherman from Barcelona', the photo that appears on page 150. I registered for this website because I have literally countless negatives and prints, all taken by my father (many at Mortensen's school in Laguna Beach, CA). Many of the photos use the abrasion tone technique pioneered by William Mortensen. Most of these negatives and prints date from the 1940s and 1950s. I worry that I may not be storing them properly, and given the age of my father when he passed away in 2002 (79), I worry whether there is anyone left who would know how to make prints from these negatives. I welcome correspondence from anyone who is interested in William Mortensen or his techniques. I know virtually nothing about photography, so apologize in advance if I have used any of these terms incorrectly.
  7. I am a new member here and have found this site to be very informative, and have enjoyed
    the photography and the articles. I'm especially interested in William Mortensen As I own
    12 of his original signed photographs and each has bits of prose, and or poetry on the
    back, in his own handwriting. I find it very interesting that he used what appears to be a
    #2 pencil. I would be happy to share them with other members by posting them. I am not
    sure how to go about this or if it is allowed. I see that members post there own photos for
    critique. I would appreciate any assistance. I sent an email to Robert Balcomb his so
    called protege with a digital pic of each, however he has chosen not to respond. The
    curator/ cataloger Macia Tiede of the CCP in Arizona has responded to my query and has
    indicated that two of the photographs from my collection, "An Indian Lyric" and "The
    Moving Finger Writes" are in there archive collection, the other ten seemed to be
    uncatalogued anywhere.
    It is such a shame that the F64 group was so hard on him. He deserved much better
    from his peers. I hope to see more of his work in the future and also would like to see
    him given credit for his innovative photo-shop like techniques that set him apart from all
    the other photographers of his day, that so many of us use as commonplace now. Bill
    Mortensen was truly ahead of his time.

    James Falzarano
  8. Hi I am new to William Mortensen I just bought one of his prints a bromoil I believe it is the Woman of Languedoc noted above I would like to contact Jack to compare photos
  9. His book "The Command to Look" copyright 1937 is his best work, and although it contains a cryptic acknowledgement to his sister, the major portion was ghost written by Robert Gorham, whom Mortensen met while both were working for Cecil B. DeMille during the late silent film era and into the early talkies era.
    Gorham was an artist and art teacher who had studied the old masters and several modern styles of art.
    He lived on a ranch that was adjacent to Clark Gable's ranch into the mid 1940's. Gorham was a friend who tried to console Gable after his terrible loss in 1942, but Gable never recovered from the death of his beloved wife, Carol Lombard, in an airplane crash.
    Both Gorham and Mortensen knew most of the early film actors and studio personnel of the 1920-1940's era.
    My research indicates that Gorham probably traded the outline for The Command to Look for photo equipment or something similar.
    Gorham's students can identify his unique expository style and can remember Gorham's references to the book and how it came into being.
    Unfortunately, Gorham died a number of years ago, as did Mortensen. Mortensen typically neve gave credit to his ghost writers. He also had strange ways of showing his friendship.
    I just thought that students of Mortensen should know the true origin of The Command to Look's references to great classics and composition, subjects that Mortensen had never studied. Gorham did not want recognition for his contribution.
    I hope that those researching this can put these clues into context.
  10. My name is Bill Allen. When I was 23 years old I moved from Louisiana to Laguna Beach CA to study photography under William Mortensen. It was my first great adventure in life and I have never forgotten it. It was there that I learned his remarkable processes, Metal-Krome, Abrasion Tone, Paper Negative etc. Now 54 years later I practice Digital headshot photography in Garfield New Jersey, but it isnโ€™t the same. The Machine will never replace the Artist. I would welcome contact from any one interested in William Mortensen or his processes. for more information see my website. I also have a signed Metal-Krome print signed by William Mortensen dated 1938 in my possession. If memory serves me he gave this to me when he was teaching me Metal-Krome. If anyone wishes to contact me concerning William Mortensen they can reach me though my website. headshots-by-bill.com
  11. I lived on the street that William Mortensen had his studio, off Ramona Avenue
    parallel to Coast Highway. I was a child, and watched every photograph he produced
    and put in his window. When I was about 10 my neighbor and I wanted to be photographed because he made all the women look beautiful. Of course we were disappointed in how we really looked, but I wished I still had those photos. They were classic! We did not have to pay, we were "models". I believe I had the impression that
    he was very much a ladies man, even at my young age. Some of my favorites of his
    were of Eilar Larsen, and some of the stars. My daughter is now a photographer and I found this site out of curiousity about Mr. Mortensen's work, and where I could show her anything he had done. Just reminiscing......I recall some male assistant who was in the studio around 1959-60, but wouldn't know who he was.
  12. Aloha:
    I have some of Bill's negatives. Including his most famous one ... also, all the books that were written under his name. Several oil paintings as well as chalks and water colors. 57 of his photos. Both black and white as well as metal-metal chrome. Also, several of his artilces for Camera Craft magazine and the "Complete Photographer+ 1942 And one that is very special. A Diploma signed by Bill recognizing my as a graduate of his school. Also many of his formulas and approach to his finishing of the photo.
    As to Bill being Gay. BS !! I spent many hours with Bill and George and their was never even an undercurrent to suggest such a thing.
    I'm only guessing, but I may have the most extensive collection of Mortensen's works in private hands.
    o.g. coffman
  13. Aloha:
    I wrote the above and so if anyone wishes to cotact me for more info. I can be reached at
  14. Thank you for this article. I am a private art dealer and collector in New York and have loved William Mortensen for many years, but only began seriously collecting recently. I have several images of his, including some masks and an original camera of his, and I am always on the lookout for more. anyone who wishes to contact me to offer me works or just discuss this great artist can do so at romanostephen@gmail.com . Many thanks. Stephen Romano
  15. Thank you for this article. I am a private art dealer and collector in New York and have loved William Mortensen for many years, but only began seriously collecting recently. I have several images of his, including some masks and an original camera of his, and I am always on the lookout for more. anyone who wishes to contact me to offer me works or just discuss this great artist can do so at romanostephen@gmail.com . Many thanks. Stephen Romano NYC

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