The Antichrist of Early-20th-Century Photography

Burning at the Stake
William Mortensen, “Untitled (staked witch scene)” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, montaged effect (all images courtesy Stephen Romano Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Violence, nudity, and the occult collide in the photographs of William Mortensen, an American photographer who gained prominence in the 1930s and ’40s but today largely exists as an obscure name in the medium’s history. William Mortensen: American Grotesque, which recently opened at Stephen Romano Gallery, revisits Mortensen’s oeuvre in a solo show featuring over 50 of the artist’s works, some displayed for the first time. On view are scenes of impending murder, sensual witches on brooms, and many portraits of young, nude women throwing coy glances at the camera.

Before he fully turned his lens on the risqué, Mortensen built a reputation as a commercial photographer in Hollywood, where his unceasing interest in highly staged settings, post-production effects, and the growing cinematic genre of horror had its roots. Aside from shooting glamorous portraits of stars from Jean Harlow to Fay Wray, he also captured stills on active film sets and set up his own tableaux in his studio at the landmark Western Costume Company, which granted him access to a trove of costumes and props.

William Mortensen, “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Standing Woman” (1925), bromoil transfer borderless doubleweight

Organized chronologically in neat rows, William Mortensen: American Grotesque begins with such images, including an orientalist series from Ferdinand Pinney Earle’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam film; though less shocking than Mortensen’s later work, these pictures reflect his growing interest in crafting fantasy scenes rather than straight documentation — to the chagrin of photographers devout to reality. Photographer Ansel Adams, leading Group f/64, once remarked: “For us, Mortensen was the antichrist.”

Viewing the exhibition, it’s clear why Mortensen clashed with the so-called purists. (The rivalry was so heated it led to his exclusion from prominent exhibitions and books, such as Beaumont Newhall’s 1949 momentous tome, The History of Photography, From 1839 to the Present Day.) Following his Hollywood series are darker works, each meticulously staged as visual representations of the grotesque. For Mortensen, the concept of the grotesque was manifest in trauma and loss — grounded particularly in fear and death — making his photographs the stuff of nightmares rather than of reality.

One of the more unsettling images includes the dramatically lit “An Episode of the Barbary Coast” (1932), showing a man grinning as he dips a woman in his arms, as if dancing. His raised hand, however, clutches a spike aimed at her exposed chest; her mouth is wide open, and her shriek seems almost audible. The allure of Mortensen’s work lies in this pairing of the horrific with the beautiful — such as the sensual, graceful figure of the female nude — provoking both repulsion and an odd sense of unbefitting pleasure.

William Mortensen, “An Episode of the Barbary Coast [also titled: The Spanish Main]” (ca. 1932), vintage silver print using a texture screen
In another print, untitled and dating to 1927, a naked witch awaits a fiery fate at the stake, although her elegant figure remains calm against the post. Below, her eager prosecutors cloaked in black appear more malevolent than her, their expressions as disturbing as the horrific punishment. The grotesque appears not only through physical action; it also resides within us. The later “Johan the Mad” (1931) echoes this conceit: the sitter’s mental state is already evident in the illlustrated title, but even without the glaring description, her turned head, twisted scarf, and staring eyes allude to her psychological trauma.

Still, while the word “grotesque” may apply to most of the exhibition’s images, many of the standard, simple nude portraits on display don’t quite spur unease. One wall devoted entirely to these portraits seems more like a shrine celebrating the beauty of the female body. In one, a woman lies down and arches her back, concealing her face but offering her body to the lens; another shows Mortensen’s wife and frequent model Myrdith Monaghan posing as “Adelita” (1932), her blouse half-worn to reveal her breasts. Here, the show suddenly jumps into more natural, relaxed scenes that evoke the mood of erotic snapshots far from the previous nightmares.

William Mortensen, “Johan the Mad” (1931), silver gelatin print, abrasion-tone process, texture screen

Especially striking of Mortensen’s photographs is that at first glance, they appear as etchings or drawings due to his heavy manipulation of his images. Describing his photographic style as “creative pictorialism,” he often scraped the surfaces of his prints and negatives with a razor blade, penciled in marks, or used self-invented texture screens to lend his images a sketch-like quality.

This blurring of mediums begs closer examination of his work, for which Mortensen obsessively strove: in 1937, he published “The Command To Look,” his detailed and highly popular guide to create photographs that capture viewers’ attentions and trigger strong psychological responses. In it, Mortensen lays out a three-step formula to produce such “effective” pictures; he also describes specific picture patterns that arouse fear and lists various subjects that carry the most emotional appeal.

In conjunction with the exhibition’s opening, Feral House recently republished The Command to Look along with American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen, a collection of the artist’s photographs and related essays. The new version of Mortensen’s own book includes additional texts on his career as well as an in-depth exploration of his impact on Anton LaVey. LaVey, influenced by Mortensen’s theories of visual manipulation, included the photographer in the dedication page of his Satanic Bible.

Installation view, “William Mortensen: American Grotesque,” at Stephen Romano Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen offers a more comprehensive biography of the long-disregarded Mortensen along with his own manifesto on creative pictorialism and a survey of his painstaking technical methods. The compendium also includes over 100 plates of his work divided into themes like “Propaganda,” “The Occult,” and “Character Studies”; many of the images are published here for the first time.

Although Mortensen’s works appeared in major publications and his Mortensen School of Photography drew thousands of students over the years, critics of his unconventional techniques still managed to nearly scrub his name from the roster of established photographers. But as today’s widespread fixation with Photoshop and other processes of image manipulation indicate, Mortensen with his meticulous methods was a true pioneer of his era.

William Mortensen, “Woman with Skull” (ca. 1926), bromoil transfer borderless doubleweight
William Mortensen, “Untitled (possession)” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, montaged effect
William Mortensen, “Lucii Ferraris” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, texture screen
William Mortensen, “Flying Witch (Myrdith)” (ca. 1930), vintage silver print
William Mortensen, “Off for the Sabbot: A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” (ca. 1927), silver gelatin print, unknown texture pattern
William Mortensen’s camera (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view, “William Mortensen: American Grotesque,” at Stephen Romano Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

William Mortensen: American Grotesque continues at Stephen Romano Gallery (111 Front Street, Suite 208, DUMBO, Brooklyn) through November 30.

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