All too seldom, a great talent comes along, a person who goes beyond where most leave off, a person charged with a curiosity that only total concentration and dedication will satisfy, and only total understanding will fulfill.
William Mortensen had that curiosity, that concentration, that dedication. He worked for and gained understanding because he spent his life in a restless search for it. He questioned everything, constantly searching for answers. If no answers were there, he experimented until he found them. If the answers demanded a procedure he did not have, he designed it. Raised in an atmosphere of love and understanding — and firm discipline — he developed the patience to stay with what interested him until he mastered it. Accordingly, he became one of the most accomplished artists with a camera. However, because of some negative feelings of a few photographers and their followers, he also became one of the most controversial.
Mortensen left us with some of the finest moments in photography. And most important, he helped continue photography as an Art. He dedicated his life to mastering the Art, and through his last thirty years, teaching what he had learned to those relatively few who could understand and master it. The one overriding truth that he tried to teach us is: One makes pictures not with a camera, rather with the aid of a camera. The camera is to the photographer as the brush is to the painter; it is no more than that. Even the kind or size of camera was of little concern to him — two of his books show a miniature camera portrait of his mother, and a Brownie Hawkeye camera portrait of a woman.
In my studies with Mortensen I gained a good understanding of his work, his philosophies, his techniques — and his humor. Mortensen had figured out certain answers about photography, which he taught to his students. It was within those answers that he became controversial — he flew in the face of the Purist photographers of those times, sometimes reversing their philosophies, even some of their techniques (for example, they preached “Expose for the shadows and let the high-lights take care of themselves,” whereas he said the opposite and proved it with his 7-D [7-Derivitive] negative in Mortensen on the Negative). To this day, their ways obviously work well for them, but for those of us who studied with Mortensen, his “controversial” techniques work well, too. More on Purists later.
William Herbert Mortensen was pure Dane. His parents were born in Denmark: William Peter Mortensen, 1859, and Agnes Thompson, 1860; married in Copenhagen,1885; soon immigrated to America and settled in Park City, Utah. Father opened and ran a family grocery store until retirement at age 72. They had four children: Ellen, Pearl, Hilda, and William. At that time the area was plagued with a devastating period of childhood diseases, and the Mortensens were not spared. Ellen was born in 1887, living into her late 80’s; but Pearl, born in 1889, died age 9 of membranous croup; and Hilma, born in 1892, died age 6 of diphtheria — 1898 was hard, with two daughters dying that same year. William was born in 1897. The parents and the three daughters are buried in Glenwood Cemetery, Park City.
Throughout his youth William was devoted to art, beginning to draw before he could write, as most children do; but he would do little else, showing little interest, for example, in sports. Father worried about the preoccupation with drawing, but Mother recognized his talent and encouraged the fledgling artist in every way she could. She bought him paint sets and drawing materials, and most importantly let him know she was proud of what he did with them. She gave him a Brownie camera, with which he took innumerable pictures. But not satisfied with local camera-shop developing and printing, he devised his own darkroom in the family bathroom and processed them himself.
Father gave the boy his own sense of order and discipline; Mother gave him her own sense of curiosity and artistic insight, along with the challenge to question — qualities he retained all his life. So Mortensen developed curiosity to look, insight to see, determination to learn, and talent to interpret.
While William was in Middle School, the Park City Record ran an article on 6 February 1912 praising his artistic abilities:
In 1907 the family moved to Salt Lake City, where William received his final public school education. At high school he studied art from head instructor H. T. Harwood (the two later became close friends). Later, he continued his art studies at The University of Utah, during which time WWI interrupted, pulling him into the Army. The war ended before he was to be shipped overseas, and he was discharged at Camp Upton, New York, in May 1919, staying in New York City to study with notables such as Bridgeman, Henri, and Bellows, among others.
With small donations from sister Ellen he took out passports to Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Constantinople, but went only to Greece, spending a year studying the Old Masters to further his skills in painting. But when funds began to run out, he ended up painting mostly posters for cafes and taverns. With help from the American Embassy he returned to New York and spent hours in museums, continuing to study the Old Masters, copying them, developing his own style. He made thousands of sketches and etchings of buildings, bridges, docks, the city itself. When money again ran out, he returned to Salt Lake City to finish college, then taught art classes, renewing his friendship with Harwood.
Although he had achieved respectable merit as a painter, Mortensen was still not satisfied, looking to other mediums for his expressions. Bit by bit, remembering his childhood Brownie, he renewed interest in photography, and progressed to better cameras. The emerging phenomenon of photography posed his newest challenge. On his own he developed a true talent with this new medium — enough, he felt, to move to Hollywood and do something with it. Part of the Mortensen story is that in Utah he befriended a girl named Fay Wray, brought her to Hollywood, cared for her, and helped her break into the movie scene, where she ultimately became a major star. Their relationship was apparently platonic — she was friend as well as model. Unfortunately her mother, suspicious of his intentions, destroyed much of his pictures of Fay.
In spending ten years there he gained valuable experience from working with movie moguls such as Ferdinand Pinney Earle and Cecil B. DeMille. He also photographed such stars as Rudolph Valentino, Jean Harlow, Lon Chaney, and Norma Shearer, and maintained his own studios, notably in moviedom’s Western Costume Company, wherein he had access to a wealth of costumes and movie personalities.
Through a remarkable period of study, experimentation, and work, Mortensen developed his philosophies and techniques. During his first major job in Hollywood, on Earle’s movie “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” Mortensen was said to be the first to photograph with a hand-held camera during the filming, instead of the usual photographing of scenes set up later. His series of still shots were bound into edition form — a highly collectible item to this day. Later, he was DeMille’s still photographer for six years, creating his masterpiece in the form of leather-bound editions of stills from DeMille’s 1925 epic “King of Kings.” Director DeMille donated a copy to the Vatican Library in Rome, along with copies to a few major libraries and universities in the United States. I saw Myrdith Mortensen’s copy during my stay with her in Laguna Beach in 1971. I still can feel the magnificence of that beautiful leather-bound collection of bromoil prints.
While in Hollywood, Mortensen developed an unusual way of making papier-mâché masks. With his capabilities as an artist he created dozens of fine, if not startling, masks — many of which were used in the movies of Lon Chaney, Sr. (Those masks are probably hidden away in someone’s collection, somewhere — they should be in the Mortensen Archive at CCP.)
In early years many outstanding photographers practiced what was known as “pictorial” photography (see Ch. VII) — beautiful, soft prints which helped move photographs into the world of Art, due to the emotional “story” feeling beyond merely recording things or places. Mortensen became immersed in the study of witchcraft, photographing many pictorial series in this mien. The supernatural became part of many of his later pictorials used in his books, creating ammunition for his Purist critics.
Mortensen and photography seemed born for each other. In its infancy, photography was perhaps not much more than a toy to most people. They simply sent in their films to be processed and printed. The general public knew little about it; few had professional control of it. Most people who did struggle with their own darkroom work were probably content to be amazed at the results of clicking a shutter and pulling from a tray of smelly chemicals a dripping print — with an image on it! But others mastered the process, helping to further the Art of photography, remaining with us in countless prints, books, and writings.
Photography developed rapidly through those early years and by necessity grew more complicated, involving optics, chemistry, metallurgy, plastics, mathematics, color, time, space. Other people were developing the tools; for some, the technology meant more than the art. But at least, people had a medium that allowed those with little or no artistic bent or mechanical aptitude to make photo likenesses of their own—it was just another plaything, given to them at little cost, mostly by the genius of George Eastman.
Mortensen, too, developed rapidly, but never regarded the camera as a toy. Because of his intense curiosity he not only used it, but took it apart to learn how it worked — he even employed the sciences, studying them to learn how they worked. He completely mastered the mechanics of photography and its processes and chemistry as well. How and Why were imperative to him. He read photo articles and books, and “talked shop” with people who professed to be photographers. It was during this period that he realized something was wrong (my experience exactly).
I do not presume to dispute honesty and integrity among the photographic companies who produce equipment and materials, but, as I see it, their film directions and “how-to” writings are based primarily on economics — the average photographer must be assured an acceptable picture, otherwise he will not continue with the product. Because he probably understands little of optics and chemistry, he must be provided materials and directions with wide latitude, somewhere within which some combination will produce a recognizable, “acceptable” picture. To help compensate for all the mystery, the system provides “gamma” tables to allow development which will better fit exposure given to film. If this latitude is not sufficient, there are dozens of films and papers from slow to fast, from weak to contrasty; and innumerable developers which act differently on the different films and papers — again, somewhere within the maze some combination will render an “acceptable” print, will “salvage” a poor negative. (Prevalent advice from those companies and photo-shop sales people seem to want the same as Mortensen’s Negative 3, as discussed later.)
All this can appear to make sense until one looks harder at the term “acceptable.” Too many photographers, professionals and amateurs alike, seem to be satisfied (!) with passable, mediocre results—with pictures having little or no artistic quality. Trips to most portrait studios, local photo shows, camera-club exhibits, or perusals of too many photo books and magazines will usually prove this. In his Mortensen on the Negative he wrote about photography as neglecting the image, the basic concern of graphic arts, and instead presenting effects, ignoring its limitations, and failing to use its unique abilities. He was talking about artistic merit, here.
Of course, there are myriad excellent portrait photographers, but the ones I’m concerned with here are those who pass-off mediocre prints as “professional” work to sell or to display in public shows, galleries, and magazines for all to see. I recall one studio in Albuquerque that sold to customers the usual mediocre stuff, but worked very hard on prints they sent to photography shows for competition—a vast difference between the two.
Mortensen told me that one day in Los Angeles, while carrying his bulky camera, tripod, and glass plates through Griffith Park, he met another photographer taking pictures of a model, and stopped to watch. The man was Arthur Kales, manager of Radio Station KFI and a well known pictorial photographer and writer. Kales did not like being interrupted and gawked at, and he told Mortensen to leave, but took heart at the vanishing fellow photographer and called him back. They spent the rest of the day discussing photography and ended up at a photo shop to exchange Mortensen’s equipment for some that Kales advised was better. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship. Kales worked primarily with bromoil and was a master with the beautiful but complicated and laborious printing process. Through Kales, Mortensen in turn mastered bromoil, but later became impatient with it—through this experience he later developed a simpler method of producing the same effects, his Pigment Process (Ch. V).
Despite his Hollywood experiences, wherein he made thousands of photographs — portraits, pictorials, landscapes, and period set-ups with costumed models—Mortensen told me that he did not achieve one print he would later consider truly acceptable. He had sent prints by the dozens to galleries and magazines by the dozens, only for them to be rejected — he was beside himself, wondering Why? One day a print, “Salome,” was finally accepted and included in a national photography magazine. He studied it to determine what it had that his others did not. He delved again into an in-depth study of the Old Masters, trying to find out what made them forever enduring, and to determine what lacked correspondingly in his own work (other than Salome).
What he found out finally changed his approach to composition, as he later described in his fifth book, The Command to Look. A definitive gem on composition, it should be a permanent part of every artist’s library (It has been out of print for decades; searching in used-book stores sometimes pays off, but the best chance is through the Internet — don’t be surprised at the prices). A study of this little book will show the principles he learned from master artists of past centuries.
In 1931, after a long period of work in Hollywood, both in movie studios as a documentary photographer and in his own portrait studios, and along with the impending depression, Mortensen became disillusioned with Hollywood and moved south to Laguna Beach. There, in a more peaceful and slow-paced setting, he developed his philosophies and techniques of photography, and later opened a school to teach them to others. He spent the rest of his life in this ocean community, working with over 3000 students (his figure). And there he wrote nine books on photography — most important Mortensen on the Negative — along with countless monographs and magazine articles, with the help of friend George Dunham, who earlier in the 30’s he had met during a commercial photo shoot, using the local playhouse for its larger space. George was a sometime actor and writer. The two joined forces, developing a life-long friendship. With his considerable help, Mortensen produced the books and developed the Pigment Process. (After his death, two of his books were reprinted by a second party, but poorly done and actually re-worded in places, changing thought or meaning — a grave injustice festered on Mortensen’s name and his truly fine and useful books.)
The Pictorialist Movement culminated in the Photo Secessionists, as compared with Photo Purists. This movement developed into a large group who followed the same feelings, but eventually broadened its scope to include more modern types of subjects — still, though, maintaining the soft feeling in their prints. Mortensen became known as the best west-coast practitioner of the Pictorial Movement. The most vocal of the Purist Group f/64 was Ansel Adams, Purist to the core (except for his earliest years), who detested pictorial photography—Mortensen and Adams argued back and forth through publications such as Camera Craft throughout the 30’s and 40’s.
Adams was unquestionably the foremost genius of landscape photography and the backbone of Group f/64, which had been instigated by Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and Willard Van Dyke in 1932. The term f/64 refers to the smallest lens aperture, which gives sharp definition, as demanded by the Purist thinking of that group. One of Weston’s early cameras had a Petzval lens with a brass barrel utilizing “Waterhouse” stops: a slot that accepted disks, each with its own f-stop hole. Weston made his own, a disk of tin foil with a hole punctured with a pin point — f/128! The group said that the camera should do all the work, as guided by the photographer, and that neither the negative nor the print should be “manipulated” with any kind of extra fiddling to produce effects not inherent in the pure negative.
In contrast, Mortensen believed that whatever work done to enhance or further add to the artistic merit of a print should be considered, as long as the photographer has the artistic ability to achieve it. In his unpublished monologue, “Meditations of a Reformed Pedagogue,” he said that to be creative, photography must go beyond what’s on a negative — it should be flexible to allow effects made by “various helps and tricks.”
For example, from a 21/4×21/4 (6×6 cm) negative he made a 14×11 paper print he called a “diapositive” (positive print darker than normal), on the back of which, on a light table, he penciled-in items of costume and background, and then contact-printed that print onto another photo paper, which became a negative print including what was on the first print along with what he had added to it. He then added to the back of the paper negative, as above, and contact-printed the worked-over negative onto any good photo paper for the finished final print (still with me?). The results are reminiscent of fine early pictorials and lithographic prints and certain etchings (see pp. 68, 73). Disregarding the Purist’s complaints, Mortensen’s approach to manipulations brought him increasing acceptance from the public and many museums and publishers. (A logical question arises at this point: Doesn’t this compare with digitally manipulated prints? My answer is that Mortensen’s style is completely human-hand done, as opposed to electronic manipulations — acceptable as long as they are admittedly done so.)
My own feelings are that the “Purists” of Group f/64 were so caught up in their own beliefs that they developed blinders to anything that differed from theirs, disregarding others’ talents and expertise. Theirs is the work of fine photographers, surely, but they should speak for themselves, not against others. Their argument concentrates on “Pictorialists,” whose techniques involve “soft prints” (not “stainless steel” sharp — Mortensen’s term), such as with bromoil printing. Curiously, Adams’ first efforts were Pictorial.
A former UNM art professor, the late Van Deren Coke, was once so adamant against all manipulation of photographs (heavily influenced by close association with Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Paul Strand), that he publicly disparaged anything Mortensen. While my wife Mary was an art student at UNM, she met Coke and had me bring some of my work to him — he gave it an expected cool reception. But years later he did a turnaround, extolling the virtues of additions, subtractions, and distortions, especially to his own photographs.
Perhaps the most important division between Mortensen and Purists is his disagreement with their wide, confusing acceptance of the adage, “Expose for the shadows and let the highlights take care of themselves.” Based on “gamma” and “inspection,” this practice tends to result in pulling film from the developer before full development has taken place — in other words, shadow areas are well developed, but light areas lack tone (gradation), are “burned out” (opposite, Negative 3). Mortensen claimed better: “Expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows,” by which, after proper agitation during the time for full development, say five minutes, film can be left in the developer for up to two hours (or until developer exhaustion fogs it) without any problems. At the five-minute stage, film has received all development it is capable of, so that it just sits there — nothing can happen after that. This means that all highlight areas and all shadow areas have “taken care of themselves” by making sure all tonal gradations have been fully established (opposite, Negative 7). Of course, everything depends on correct exposure, in the first place.
Part Four of Mortensen on the Negative fully explains his 7-Derivative, 7-D, negative, as illustrated in the following (reading left to right, each line):
Number 3 shows under-exposure, under-development. Number 7 shows under-exposure, over-development.
Mortensen’s 7-D negative combines Numbers 7 and 8 because slightly less exposure is needed with Number 7, moving slightly into Number 8 (standard-exposure, over-development).
To put it to practical use, in the portrait below, the light reading is taken at the highlight area on the forehead, to fit with minimum exposure (tweaked Number 3). Full development takes care of the rest (Numbers 7 and 8).
(Either use spot meter, or take reading through one-inch hole
in black cardboard held against this area.)
In his Laguna Beach studio Mortensen did a great deal of work with models, both men and women, women both nude and in costume. He made up his own costumes with pieces of cloth, sashes, scarves, trinkets, whatever he could find to approximate costumes, feeling that using actual costumes ended up as photographing costumes for the sake of costumes, detracting from the figure and “story” being illustrated. These were not meant to be portraits, of course, but Pictorials. “Stamboul” depicts a semi-nude woman standing against a wall, with one hand resting on a ledge covered with cloth material.
She has a scarf on one shoulder and a skirt topped by a “girdle,” holding three daggers. (With only two actual daggers available, he used a screwdriver for the third, knowing that an odd number is better compositionally than an even number; on the paper negative he manipulated the screwdriver with charcoal pencil to more resemble a dagger and added tones for the background.)
The wall section behind her and the item the model was leaning on were packing boxes. The whole effect, involving the above paper-negative process (making the observer see just what the artist wanted him to see), is typical Mortensen wizardry. (That grinding sound I hear is the teeth of the Purist faction, I’m sure.)
After a long and costly period of intensive experimenting, Mortensen, with Dunham, simplified the time-consuming bromoil printing into his own Pigment Process (see Ch. V). But Mortensen later dropped even it, telling me during my last visit that it was “too time-consuming and laborious” (I think he simply was tired — possibly resulting from impending leukemia?). Myrdith gave me a large box of notes and samples for the Pigment Process experiments, most of which I donated to CCP.
Photographers today who are not aware of bromoils, and especially the Mortensen Pigments, are missing out on a rich, rewarding experience. His Pigments give the effect of bromoils, but in a much less-complicated manner (one can find similar techniques known as Gum Dichromate, or Gum Bichromate, in books found in photo shops). Mortensen went through a long period of bromoil “Pictorials,” along with hand-retouched prints depicting scenes of monsters and people, some shown in all manner of dismemberment.
Until recently, only three histories of photography even give mention to Mortensen—one includes only one sentence with one sample of his work, a “Grotesque” (see “L’Amour” below), but never a “straight” portrait from his vast, superb oeuvre. I have a feeling that “L’Amour” was used as a point to “prove” the Purists’ complaints of his work. Too, I can’t find Mortensen-signed portraits of customers in any book. The best history, An American Century of Photography, built around the Hallmark Photographic Collection, does give due credit to Mortensen and his work.
Throughout past years many well-known critics have stated their negative arguments, such as the late 1800’s English photographer P. H. Emerson, who spoke of “impure photography”; and the highly influential arts critic Sadakichi Hartmann, who in 1904 made a plea for “straight” photography. Fortunately, the pendulum swingeth back in growing acceptance of more artistic renditions of the Photo Arts. To his own students Mortensen proved that photography can succeed in its simplest forms, yet take advantage of its complicated aspects and, if handled correctly, can maintain a rightful place in the world of Fine Art.
Of the positive treatises written about Mortensen, the most outstanding are by Larry Lytle and A. D. Coleman. Larry is a professional commercial and advertising photographer in Los Angeles. A devotee of William Mortensen, he saw my work in LA and introduced me to CCP. Larry has received numerous awards for his photographic work and has contributed writings to the books William Mortensen: A Revival (CCP publication) and Neon Signs of Los Angeles, in addition to scholarly articles and photography in the popular website TheScreamOnline.com. He is on the faculty of Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester CA, is associated with the Society for Contemporary Photography, and is Archival Coordinator and board member for the LA Museum of Neon Art (MONA).
A. D. Coleman, photographic historian in Staten Island NY, has researched Mortensen in depth. One monograph in particular relates the sad story about the concentrated exclusion of any mention of Mortensen by Ansel Adams, and especially Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, from the histories of photography. Indeed, they showed such a dislike for Mortensen, bordering on outright hatred, that through their ingrained high statures in the field they were successful in this outright purge. Also, Coleman bemoaned the fact that Mortensen left no written records other than his books—what a treasure a set of diaries would be!
Many of Mortensen’s prints and books can be found through the Internet, and interest has been such that prices are rapidly rising — still, well worth it. One should be wary of lithographic prints touted to be originals. Litho’s could be in the $100’s, but a true Mortensen can cost $2000-on-up. People have sent me prints bought through the Internet for $1000 or more, asking if real or fake — most were fakes, so far only one was real, a WM bromoil of “Woman of Languedoc.”
In 1965, mid-point during my time at UNM, I read in the local newspaper that Mortensen had died from leukemia. When with him, I saw no signs of any such problem, other than that last-visit tiredness — the only worry I remember was his constant loading, lighting, and smoking that pipe.
The death of William Herbert Mortensen brought to an end one of the most colorful and enduring pages in the history of photography. His legacy now lives on in his prints and writings, along with the memories of him in so many who studied under him, especially those who are continuing with the techniques in traditional photography that he introduced to us.
William Herbert Mortensen died 12 August 1965 of leukemia, at Scripps Clinic & Research Foundation in La Jolla, buried in Fairhaven Memorial Park, Santa Ana CA, 16 August 1965. (Photograph by Larry Lytle)
Myrdith Monaghan Mortensen died 6 August 1981 of cancer at South Coast Medical Center, South Laguna Beach CA, buried alongside her husband, 11 August 1981.
George Dunham died 25 June 1976 of heart failure in Costa Mesa, California (grave location unknown to me).