Sunday, March 28, 2010

William Mortensen, 1897-1965

c. 1930s

The late William Mortensen was, by the time of his death, a largely forgotten figure in the photographic world.  Along with Baltimorean A. Aubrey Bodine, Mortensen was the last great exponent of Pictorialism:  A painterly school of photography that was supplanted in the late 1920s and early 1930s by the purism of such masters as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

Mortensen's particular style was an admixture of Bernini, Goya, Poe, and Morticia Addams, but never came across as hodge-podge.  In the early 1930s, his Los Angeles studio boasted such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich and Fay Wray, but it was Mortensen's grotesqueries and lurid pin-ups for which he would later be remembered.

Mortensen's longtime friend and colleague
George Dunham as Niccolo Machiavelli, 1935

 No less a luminary than Ansel Adams launched a smear campaign to destroy Mortensen -- and succeeded.  Adams bristled at referring to him by name, calling him only "The Anti-Christ."

Fitting with his dark aesthetic, however, Mortensen would have the last laugh -- from the grave.  In death, Mortensen would become hugely influential on today's Gothic art renaissance. 

The Pit and the Pendulum, after Poe, 1934

For further reading on Mortensen, I commend to readers Larry Lytle's excellent piece, "The Command to Look," Carey Loren's reflections on Monsters and Madonnasas well as my articles on and my website.