The Fantastic Photography-art of William Mortensen
William Mortensen – photographer/artist (1897 – 1965)
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William Mortensen started his photographic career in Hollywood taking portraits of famous actors, including; Rudolph Valentino, Lon Chaney, Jean Harlow, Peter Lorre. He was also responsible for bringing Fay Wray to Hollywood and introducing her to important people. He worked on films with Cecil B. DeMille, Todd Browning and Lon Chaney as decorator and designer. He soon developed a photographic style that involved manipulation of photos to resemble Romanticist artwork. What resulted were art pieces that seemed to be photographs.
Inspired by Goya and Bosch he moved into the subject matter of the gothic and grotesque in a collection called, A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft. The images were primal, sexual, and violent, often depicting torture and death. Photographic purists, Ansel Adams, Larry Lytle and the photo group F/64 referred to him as the anti-Christ and the Devil. They sought to discredit him as a photographer and obliterate his name and work from photographic history.
His ability to capture the beauty of the female body and bring attention to the grotesque treatment of women in history leaves a statement that holds sentiment to this day. The contrast of beauty and ugly seemed to drive his work to new heights of creativity. His techniques of manipulating photos were studied even by his enemies and are standard practices today. There isn’t a photo published in modern times that hasn’t been modified in Photoshop or some other photo manipulation program. Filters, forced exposures and collage techniques common to today’s programs were being used by Mortensen at the beginning of the 20th century. It is only recently that his work has been receiving a second look and is being appreciated by the art and photographic institutions.
Explore more of Mortensen’s work in books: American Grotesque and Monsters and Madonnas