William Mortensen’s (1897-1965) ingenue belonged to the burgeoning movement of modernist
photography between the 1920s and the 1950s, but his name rarely appears in its retrospectives. Known for occult, macabre portraiture and a mastery of illustration and photomontage, his body of work was the antithesis to that of popular modernist visionaries like Ansel Adams and Paul Strand, who sought out the realist artistry of angles, perspective and light and shadow in the natural world. Mortensen’s aesthetic interest was, instead, pictorial; meticulous staging and photo manipulation created his signature scenes which were bizarrely morbid and erotic, and garnered equal scorn and acclaim in their time.
After deployment during WWI and a grand tour of Europe informally studying illustration, Mortensen arrived in Hollywood in the 1920s and launched his career shooting studio portraiture of starlets like Clara Bow, Margaret Livingstone, and Jean Harlow (on display currently in the rear parlor of the Kellogg House) and leveraged his success in portrait photography to solicit models for personal projects.
Under the rubric of gaudily nightmarish 1930s monster movies like King Kong and Frankenstein, Mortensen elevated the melodrama of film horror to virtuosic stills which made sense of, and in fact championed, an escalating cultural preoccupation with all things gothic, violent, and absurd. Actress Fay Wray, with whom he traveled to Hollywood originally, was somewhat his first muse, the subject of an iconic reclining seminude surrounded by masks which Mortensen handcrafted as a prop designer for the films King of Kings and East of Zanzibar.
His surreal compositions were achieved with traditional and improvised printmaking techniques such as bromoil transfer, in which a silver print is copied into ink through a process of bleaching and tanning of the silver and gelatin. To emulate etchings, he manually applied a brushstroke-like texture to pieces, making them indistinguishable from illustrations. Mortensen penned a series of bestselling instructional books and founded the William Mortensen School of Photography and an adjacent studio in Laguna Beach, where he lived from 1931 until his death in 1965. Here, his seminal “pictorial compendium of witchcraft” was conceived, including more than 150 fantastical occult images that showcased signature technical practices: pre-digital collage, controlled exposure and more.
This collection is cognizant of the tradition its name references, pictorialism, while also homing in on the grit and hedonism of a postwar, rapidly-commercializing world. In Mortensen’s rejection of the puritanical realist movement, he reinvented the preternatural anxieties of the Old World and the painterly style in which they were first manifested by Romantic-era painters for a modern audience with an almost authoritarian control of subject, model, staging and perspective. More of a picture-maker than photographer, his works left little to the imagination; instead, he stewarded the viewer through narratives that were often referential, especially in relation to history and religion. “Maid Servant Pouring Milk” (ca. 1938, on display in the Kellogg House kitchen) is a near-identical homage to Johannes Vermeer’s baroque painting “The Milkmaid” (ca. 1660). “Sappho” (ca, 1928, on display in the Kellogg House rear parlor) is one of several representations of female iconoclasts from history, in the company of French monarch Marie Antoinette and ancient Egyptian goddess Bast. His preferred characters, though, were anonymous embodiments of the magical, monstrous, and sacrilegious. This role was often filled by his wife, Myrdith Monaghan, pictured in “Youth” (ca. 1930, on display in the Maag House dining room) and in “Torse” (ca. 1932, on display in Maag House foyer).
Blending themes of the taboo from folk religion and Christian legend and art, his “Preparation of the Sabbath” suite (ca. 1928, on display in Maag House dining room) is exemplary of his visual philosophy, which relied heavily on Carl Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Discussed in his methodology masterwork Monsters and Madonnas, the bodies featured in his photographs are hardly human; they’ve been demoted to witches, mystics, art objects, victims, who are both at the mercy of the viewer’s fear response, and actively choosing to invoke terror. In such doctored scenarios Mortensen streamlines violence and eroticism into work that tows the line of exploitative imagery. Religious regalia, historical costuming, and grafted backgrounds set a tone of pastiche consistent through the collection. Commenting on “The Woman of Languedoc” (ca. 1935, on display in the Maag House dining room), Mortensen wrote: “The costume makes no pretense to authenticity. An authentic costume is nearly always bad pictorially.”
These stylized reproductions of myth are perhaps more grotesque than their source material. In fact, it is our embedded anxieties and the mystique of antiquity that Mortensen’s work expertly accesses and transforms into a sybilline appraisal of attraction and repulsion. If not for the prescient representation of obscenity, the female body, and the supernatural, his technical prowess in composition and editing surely wins him a place in the annals of art history for denying the status of photography as a neutral record of the physical world.