Review: ‘American Grotesque’ resurrects William Mortensen’s photos

It’s hard to imagine two 20th century American photographers more diametrically opposed than the macabre visionary William Mortensen and Ansel Adams, poster boy for so-called straight photography. Google Ansel Adams and you get a Sierra Club Calendar-ready black-and-white photo of the Grand Tetons. Do the same for William Mortensen and you get what appears to be an etching of a naked nubile witch perched provocatively on a broomstick.

Odds are that Adams rings a bell but that you’ve never heard of Mortensen, subject of a splendid new book, “American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen,” the most extensive work on one of the strangest and most compelling artists of the 20th century.

Yet at the height of his fame in the 1930s, Mortensen was perhaps the best-known practitioner of his craft: the first photographer-as-celebrity. Born in Utah in 1897, he studied at the Art Students League in New York, traveled briefly to Greece before returning to Park City, where he dated a young woman named Willow Fay. In 1921, he loaded his motorcycle’s sidecar with photographic equipment and drove to Hollywood, where he acted as chaperone to Willow Fay’s 14-year-old sister, Vina, one of his first photographic models.

Determined to find work as an actress, Vina soon changed her name to Fay Wray. She sent her mother copies of the photos Mortensen had taken of her, artfully draped in crepe de chine. Wray mére subsequently hot-tailed it to Hollywood. There she confronted Mortensen and, in an eerie foreshadowing of his work’s later disappearance from the public eye, destroyed the glass negatives he’d taken of her daughter.

In Hollywood, Mortensen worked with Cecil B. DeMille — he was the first photographer to shoot still photos on set rather than posed in a studio. He went on to photograph Jean Harlow, Lon Chaney Sr., John Barrymore, Rudolf Valentino and Norma Shearer, and he created a series of disturbing masks for Chaney’s star turn as a wheelchair-bound stage magician in “West of Zanzibar,” a lurid film directed by Tod Browning, later notorious for “Freaks.”


From the outset, Mortensen’s subject matter was unabashedly theatrical, bizarre and often louche. He was an ardent admirer of Goya and Daumier, and with his Hollywood access to costumes, sets, makeup and masks, would create elaborate tableaux vivants in his studio. He mastered the bromoil process early on and later developed and refined his own techniques for lighting, multiple exposures and the like. He was most famous (and later infamous) for retouching prints (though seldom negatives) with the abrasion control process, which used razor blades, carbon pencil, ink, powder tone, sable brush, eraser, pumice. The resulting images are almost indistinguishable from etchings or paintings.

As the years passed, his work increasingly tended toward the gothic, a trend enhanced after he met occultist Manly P. Hall in 1926. This is when Mortensen began to produce his best and strangest work, the “Pictorial History of Witchcraft and Demonology.” Many of these photos are gorgeously reproduced in “American Grotesque” for the first time, along with equally strange and compelling images that first appeared in Mortensen’s two masterworks, “Monsters and Madonnas: A Book of Methods” and “The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze.”

“The Command to Look” developed a (literal) cult following after Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, name-checked Mortensen’s work as influential in “The Satanic Bible” [1969]. Feral House has reprinted Mortensen’s long out-of-print book in a handsome new edition with an excellent intro by Larry Lytle and an amusing afterword by Michael Moynihan on Mortensen’s influence on modern Satanism.

In the 1930s, Mortensen left Hollywood and founded his own school of photography in Laguna Beach, where his students included Hollywood cinematographers and silent film stars. His photos appeared in Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times and Theater Magazine, among many others. His how-to books, written with his friend George Dunham, went into multiple printings, and his name was used to sell photographic equipment: “Made for Mortensen — Available To You!”

He was the first photographer to become a name brand, as Lytle writes in “American Grotesque”: a precursor to Warhol, Mortensen’s influence can be seen today in the work of Cindy Sherman, Joel-Peter Witkin and fashion photographer Steven Klein, to name only a few.

So if Mortensen’s name and work still don’t ring a bell, you might blame Ansel Adams.

The photographers sparred publicly in serialized essays that ran in the pages of Camera Craft magazine in 1934. Adams’ contribution was “An Exposition of My Photographic Technique,” in which the relatively unknown photographer laid out the tenets of the San Francisco-based f/64 Group he’d organized two years earlier with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, among others.

In his essay, Adams stated: “Photography is an objective expression; a record of actuality.” Mortensen’s essay, “Venus and Vulcan: An Essay on Creative Pictorialism,” countered that “the ideal they [Group f/64] have set up of complete literal recording is a very primitive one — a good beginning but not an end in itself.”

Tragically, Mortensen was on the losing side of this particular artistic skirmish. According to critic A.D. Coleman, the artists and critics associated with Group f/64, especially Adams and his friends Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, “loathed Mortensen with a passion bordering on religious crusading. By the time Mortensen died [in 1965], they’d seemingly won the war between their camp and his, and had long since adopted a scorched-earth policy.”

Mortensen’s work soon disappeared from critical discourse, and even his photographic archive (somewhat mysteriously) all but vanished. In a letter published in the World Journal of Post-Factory Photography [August 2000], Coleman “lays the blame for that squarely on the doorstep of Newhall, Adams, and the others whose active hostility to Mortensen’s work virtually ensured that, at his death in 1965, no respectable repository would have considered acquiring and preserving his materials.”

“American Grotesque” recounts this conflict, and much more, in a long-overdue assessment of Mortensen’s work and aesthetic philosophy. The book includes a thoughtful biography by Lytle; the complete text of “Venus and Vulcan”; and A.D. Coleman’s influential, caustic essay “Conspicuous by His Absence: Concerning the Mysterious Disappearance of William Mortensen,” along with a stunningly reproduced gallery of Mortensen’s images, many of them published here for the first time.

Group f/64 abhorred Mortensen’s manipulation of “reality,” his unabashedly Romantic stance. The Newhalls found his photos and philosophy “perverse” and in bad taste.

This is often true. Mortensen’s work embraced the gothic, the occult and the trappings of sexual fetishism (especially bondage). Some of the photos reproduced in “American Grotesque,” like “Untitled (abduction by monks),” are unintentionally hilarious. Others are merely camp. He had a legendary predilection for shooting female nudes and as his career declined produced way too many of the cheesecake photos he himself had once deplored.

Yet much of Mortensen’s work retains its power to haunt, if not shock, viewers whose sensibilities have been numbed by a 24/7 news cycle reliant on disturbing imagery. He believed that “the Grotesque becomes important. … It is recognizably our world that Romance deals with, but somehow transfigured by mystery and surprise, and illuminated with strange lights.”

And his writings, especially on the uses of propagandist images and the limits of straight photography — “a good beginning but not an end in itself” — have proved to be amazingly prescient in our post-Photoshop, Instagram world. He recognized early on that visionary photographers could “push their optical equipment to strange extremes, not to reveal unimportant detail, nor as a mere technical stunt, but because the result is beautiful. … [They] represent a phase of pictorial photography whose very existence is barely glimpsed, and whose potentialities are at this time unpredictable.”

Adams and Group f/64 may have won a battle over photography’s future, but nearly 50 years after his death and decades of obscurity, Mortensen appears to have won the war. His archive now resides in the collection of the Center for Creative Photography, along with those of Adams (one of CCP’s founders), Weston, Cunningham and Van Dyke.

Hand’s forthcoming novels are “Hard Light” and “Wylding Hall.”

American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen
Edited by Larry Lytle and Michael Moynihan
Feral House, 287 pp, $45

The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze
By William Mortensen & George Dunham
Feral House, 232 pp, $20 paper