Thursday, February 9, 2012

William Mortensen: Monsters and Madonnas


Photos by William Mortensen

Several months ago I ran across this book at The Purple Heart thrift store and just had to buy it.  Years ago I worked in photography and was intrigued by this old book. I have since learned there is renewed interest in the life and work of artist and photographer William Mortensen.  Yes, the cover of this book was in bad condition but the pages were all intact.  I paid only a dollar for it but on Amazon found used copies currently going for $59.99.

My treasured one dollar book.

William Mortensen, (1897-1965), after serving with the US Infantry from 1918 to 1919, studied illustration at the Art Students League in New York City.  He is primarily known for his Hollywood portraits in the 1920s-1940s in the pictorialist style.  He preferred the pictorialism style of manipulating photographs to produce romanticist painting-like effects.  He received much criticism from straight photographers of the modern realist movement. One of his most vocal critics was the photographer Ansel Adams. They carried on a "prolonged written debate".

One of his more angelic faces.  He used old techniques
of spot-printing and vignetting on this photographic portrait.

Portrait of William Mortensen.  I have to say
I like his sense of humor.

Wiki says:

His arguments defending romanticism photography led him to be "ostracized from most authoritative canons of photographic history."  In an essay, Larry Lytle wrote "Due to his approach—both technically and philosophically in opposition to straight or purist adherents — he is amongst the most problematic figures in photography in the twentieth-century... historians and critics have described his images as "...anecdotal, highly sentimental, mildly erotic hand-colored prints...", "...bowdlerized versions of garage calendar pin-ups and sadomasochist entertainments...", "...contrived set-ups and sappy facial expressions...", and finally he was described by Ansel Adams as alternately the "Devil", and "the anti-Christ.""

The man was vilified. (my words) :-(

One of his ghastly creatures ... I find it interesting
that Fay Wray gave credit to her success and discovery
to Mortensen.  He traveled with her as an escort to Hollywood.   Fourteen year old Wray
was a friend of his sister's.

A beautiful face ... I suspect this one may be one of his
enhanced photographs.  It could also be
an illustration.

The Warlock

The Salvador Dali clock theme.

Jean Harlow

Mary Duncan (1895-1993) American actress. 
She died at the age of 97.
Photo made in 1920 by Mortensen. 

Love this one, too.

One of Mortensen's illustrations.
That nose ... why is this man smiling?

I can think of two possible reasons. 

(I don't know a symbol for a smirking smile)

(or downright FEAR!)

This one is entitled, "Fear".  I can see some airbrushing
techniques in the folds of the veil -like material
 in this one.

Another Jean Harlow portrait

Was this man ever ahead of the time!  Look around us today in this digital age of photography.
Recent years have brought praise for Mortensen's development of manipulation techniques and a renewed interest in his work.

Some of my old Marshall's Photo Oil Colors.  I have hung
on to them all these years.

Thank you all so much for spending a little time here with me.


Clint said...

Really, really striking. What can you say about pure genius?

Shady Del Knight said...

Based on these examples I love Mortensen's work, Cindy. I love art in all its forms. Why must there be so much arrogance in art, literature and other disciplines? It's all good. There's room for every style and every school. A few days ago I watched a documentary about architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the story was much the same. He butted heads with an establishment that thought the existing trend in architecture and design was the only one with any validity. Wright's ideas were dismissed. Why does it often take decades after an artist's death before his or her genius is fully recognized?

Carol Blackburn said...

Wow, lots of wonderful information Cindy, you certainly must do a lot of research on your subject for your blog post. Love many of those photos. So much innuendo (for lack of a better word) in them.

Shelly said...

What a talent he was- and such a tragic thing that he was treated the way he was treated. I love your posts- so informative and beautiful, always.

Nova said...

Love these old pictures, and for sure, you made a good deal ;-)

Greetings and take care

Cindy Ellison said...

Good morning, y'all ... thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and kind words.

Crown of Beauty said...

Amazing photographs, amazing find for a dollar.

Hope your cold is getting better.

Glad to have a little time this morning to reconnect with you!


Anonymous said...

Hi, Cindy

I'm so HAPPY I CAN FINALLY LEAVE A massage. the pictures are wounderful amazing. thanks for sharing.

Happy Valentines Day to you & Clint!!

Love ya Ginny

Starry Dawn said...

Hi Cindy,
I am always impressed when I visit your site. The pictures you have shared are gorgeous. I also love your own paintings, especially the one with those eyes of Marilyn Monroe. You have done a spectacular job. I see you are traveling with your husband to different places. That is awesome, and good for the soul. Getting feed back from our natural environment, it also improves our ability to become more inspired and creative. I would like to invite you to read my song-lyrics that I wrote for lovely Tennessee. I wrote my country song a while ago, but I wish to share my lyrics with my Online friends, especially on Valentine's Day. I've already post it under the name of: "Dreaming of Tennessee."
I know you are from Tennesse, so I am sure, you'll be delighted in reading my poetical lines for gorgeous Tennessee. God has given you special gifts, such as to be a great artist painter, to be loved, to have your beloved ones with you, to live in paradise places, and so on...
You can count your many blessings, sweet Cindy. I really miss your adorable presence in my blogs.
Have a Happy Valentine's Day with those you love, Cindy dear!!
Poet Starry Dawn.

wal kardana said...

I first read Mortensen's 7D book when, as aspiring teenage portrait photographer [it is I who provided the "teenage" ingredient in this formulation], I had heard of "developing for days" as a way of obtaining maximum gradation in face tones.
I was ok with the bizarre developing technique, but considered his manipulation of prints - after printing - as sacrilegious.
Sixty years later I marvel (with some disgust) at how brazenly narrow-minded I had been. The man was an artist - first and foremost - and need only be judged on the merit of his finished work; what he did to the medium (often, media)in arriving at his goal (the finished work)is of no more relevance as whether, or not, he got laid somewhere in there, during the process (yes, pun :-)
Thank you, Cindy, for giving me the opportunity to relive the memories.
With Sincere Regards,

Cindy Ellison said...

Thank you, Casey, for your most interesting comments. So many people felt the way you did about his work. I was just thinking about Mortensen yesterday. I like to think of him as the "Father of Photoshop". Our photography teacher just last evening shared that there are those out there that think "enhancing" your photos are cheating. Thank you again Casey.