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HomeContents > People > Photographers > William Mortensen

Dates:  1897, 27 January - 1965, 12 August
Born:  US, UT, Park City
Died:  US, CA, Laguna Beach
Active:  US
 
  
Pictoralist images.

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for William Mortensen
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)

 
  
Mortensen was the most widely known American pictorialist during the 1930s and 1940s. This was the result of his flamboyant images, his prolific writing, and his influential teaching. He lived most of his creative life in Southern California, where he staged female nudes and other figures in uniquely provocative and/or historically based settings.
 
William Herbert Mortensen was born on January 27, 1897, in Park City, Utah. He grew up in Salt Lake City and studied at the Art Students League in New York from 1918 to 1920. After serving in the U.S. Army, he went to Greece and then returned to Salt Lake City to teach art at East Side High School, from which he had graduated. In 1921, he moved to Hollywood, where he initially designed sets and made masks for the Western Costume Company. Mortensen received a Kodak camera when he was about ten years old and was photographing for money by the time he moved to California. In 1925, he opened a portrait studio on Hollywood Boulevard, and the next year filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille hired him to make still pictures on the set of The King of Kings. Unlike other photographers, Mortensen used a small-format camera for the job—reportedly a first—and shot his pictures while the movie cameras were rolling. The results were included in an elaborate, limited-edition, oversize book made up of original photographic prints.
 
In 1930, he left Hollywood for Laguna Beach, where he opened the William Mortensen School of Photography two years later. Over the next thirty years, the school preached good technique and manipulative processes to approximately three thousand students.
 
Mortensen enhanced the school’s influence and his own income with his prolific writing on photography. In 1934, his first book, Projection Control, was published. In conjunction with George Dunham, he wrote eight more books within the next decade, delving into aesthetics as well as explaining technique. In Monsters and Madonnas (1936), his most important title, he pitted universal beauty against the mere mechanics of photography and also reproduced his most challenging images. In The Command to Look: A Formula for Picture Success (1937) he dissected female anatomy in terms of artistic picture making.
 
Mortensen wrote hundreds of magazine articles as well. His primary forum was the San Francisco-based monthly Camera Craft, to which he began contributing lead articles in 1933. For a time, the magazine also printed articles by Ansel Adams, promoting the straight aesthetic; the result was a lively debate between two devoted protagonists. After the 1942 demise of Camera Craft, Mortensen continued to write regularly forPopular Photography and to reach an even wider audience; he instructed readers on costuming, composition, the paper negative, and numerous other topics still of interest to pictorialists. In 1950, he introduced a regular column in American Photography.
 
Mortensen’s distinctive pictorial images were highly orchestrated, heavily manipulated, melodramatic, and beautifully rendered. He made character studies, where figures were given universal attributes; idealized nudes; and so-called "grotesques," which pictured the darker side of humanity—a rarity for pictorialists. These pictures were seen on the international salon circuit from the mid-1920s through the 1930s. Mortensen also presented one-person exhibitions at the Camera Club of New York in 1927, the California Camera Club (San Francisco) in 1928, 1929, and 1934, and the Smithsonian Institution in 1948. Beginning in the mid-1930s, he issued small, inexpensive portfolios of his work, usually made up of copy prints that don’t compare to his exhibition prints.
 
Dissatisfied with the straight photographic image, Mortensen invariably hand-altered his pictures with texture screens, abrasion-tone techniques, and other means that made every image distinctly his own. In the mid-1930s, he developed the Metalchrome process, which allowed him to turn monochrome images into color pictures. As a teacher, he shared most of these methods and techniques in his classes and writings.
 
In the early 1960s Mortensen returned to painting. He died of leukemia on August 12, 1965, in Laguna Beach. 
  
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012) 
  
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission. 
  
Date last updated: 1 June 2013. 
  
SHARED BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION PROJECT 
  
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
 
If you find any errors please email us details so they can be corrected as soon as possible.
 
  

Biography provided by Focal Press 
  
Mortensen, born in Utah, lived in Southern California and became the outspoken leader of the pictorialist movement in the United States during the 1930s. His photography consisted of Hollywood film stills, portraits of noted actors/actresses, and his personal art, and aggressively manipulated images of mythological, historical, and literary characters. He carried on an intense debate in camera periodicals (1930s) with Ansel Adams over contentious principles of Pictorialism vs. "straight" photography (the latter personified by Group f/64). As an unjust consequence for his stubborn defense of more romantic theories for photography, Mortensen was essentially ostracized from most authoritative canons of photographic history — especially those authored by Adams’ good friends, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall. Renewed interest and respect for Mortensen, his work and writings, has been courageously led by the critic A. D. Coleman (see his essay and others in William Mortensen: A Revival, 1998). Mortensen perfected his metal-chrome process (bromoil derived) and pattern screen methods for modifying photographic prints, as well as publishing many books on abrasive-tone monoprints and technical hints on lighting, models, costumes, and darkroom modifications. His portrait subjects include Fay Wray, Jeanne Crain Lon Chaney, Clara Bow, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, and George Dunham (his collaborator and favorite model). In 1932 he founded the William Mortensen School of Photography, Laguna Beach, California, and one of his students was Rock Hudson. Many contemporary critics and scholars point out the example of Mortensen’s portrait style as a validated antecedent when considering the acclaimed praise and popularity of the manipulated images of Cindy Sherman and Yasumasa Morimura. 
  
(Author: Ken White - Rochester Institute of Technology) 
  
Michael Peres (Editor-in-Chief), 2007, Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, 4th edition, (Focal Press) [ISBN-10: 0240807405, ISBN-13: 978-0240807409] 
(Used with permission) 
  

Further research

 
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Portraits 
  
If you have a portrait of this photographer or know of the whereabouts of one we would be most grateful. 
  
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Visual indexes

 
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Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
 

Internet resources

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William Mortensen 
http://www.geh.org ... 
  
 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

 
• Fernandez, Horacio (ed.) 2000 Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print 1919-1939 (Aldeasa) p.180 [This Spanish exhibition catalogue is one of the best sources for illustrations of photomontage and book design for the period between the two World Wars.] 
  
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on William Mortensen.] 
  
 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

 
• Sobieszek, Robert A. and Deborah Irmas 1994 the camera i: Photographic Self-Portraits (Los Angeles: LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art) p.226, Plate 50 [When the Audrey and Sydney Irmas collection was donated to LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1992 the museum gained a remarkable collection of self portraits of notable photographers. If you need a portrait of William Mortensen this is a useful starting point.] 
  
 
  
 
  
 
  
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