The Strange Photography of a Nearly-Forgotten American Artist

William Mortensen was a famed photographer, working most prominently from the 1920s through the 1940s and known for Hollywood portraits done in his pictorialist style. Mortensen’s work had a look all its own, as the images were manipulated to look almost like romanticist paintings. Instead of taking pictures of what was simply before him, he developed his own techniques to change how they look and went on to publish a number books on the subject of photography and photograph manipulation. Of course, being an inspired and successful artist was bound to bring him some critics, most notably Ansel Adams of the “Hey look, a bunch of trees” and “Hey look, some mountains” school of boring photography. He was Mortensen’s sharpest critic, even going so low as to call him “the antichrist.” As modern realist, “straight photographers” gained popularity and World War II popularized photojournalism, Mortensen fell by the wayside. His work has had a resurgence in the last few years, though, with exhibitions around the country and the recent publication of two books. The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze is a reprinting of one of Mortensen’s premier books, detailing the philosophy and psychology behind his photography methods, and has been out of print for about 40 years. Meanwhile, American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen is a beautiful hardcover tribute to the little-known artist whose work deserves to be acknowledged in the canon of the history of American photography.

This Friday, February 13, 7-9pm, join Feral House publisher Adam Parfrey and authors Larry Lytle and Michael Moynihan for a book signing and presentation with a slide show at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles. The gallery is also showing some of Mortensen’s incredible images, a few of which are included below.

William Mortensen, "L’Amour"

William Mortensen, “L’Amour”

William Mortensen, "Cesare Borgia"

William Mortensen, “Cesare Borgia”

William Mortensen, "Staked Witch Scene"

William Mortensen, “Staked Witch Scene”

William Mortensen, "The Pit and the Pendulum"

William Mortensen, “The Pit and the Pendulum”

William Mortensen, "Human Relations," 1932

William Mortensen, “Human Relations,” 1932

William Mortensen, "Tantric Sorcerer"

William Mortensen, “Tantric Sorcerer”

(All photos courtesy Feral House and La Luz de Jesus.)