William Mortensen: The Anti-Ansel

William Mortensen’s Wikipedia entry consists of one line: “William H. Mortensen (1897 – 1965) was an American art photographer.” Though he was a well-known and respected Hollywood photographer in the 30s, Mortensen remains relatively obscure today due to his devotion to pictorialism, the Ye Olde version of “Photoshop the shit out of everything” – a style that, while he was living, became quickly supplanted by the straight photograph as the spirit and future of photography. Mortensen was one of the few photographers to champion pictorialism in its battle against “straight” photography, and he lost, becoming a footnote in photo history. But not before it got personal: Ansel Adams went so far as to call Mortensen “the devil” and “the anti-christ.”

An excellent essay and image gallery by Cary Loren on the Journey Round My Skull blog outlines Mortensen’s work against the backdrop of pictorialism’s waning relevance, and uncovers newly-scanned tidbits of Mortensen’s two books: his pictorial manifesto, Monsters & Madonnas (1936) and his more instructional title, The Command to Look. The grainy, sinewy images remind me of Laurie LiptonRichard D. James (it’s that smile!), and Gustave Doré. Some images of Mortensen’s less creepy work can be found on this page, alongside another excellent bio and notes on his process. [via IO9]

9 Responses to “William Mortensen: The Anti-Ansel”

  1. Tequila Says:

    I can get behind this…definitely tugs at what I like about image manipulation. It adds a character and story you just can’t do straight unless what’s being already shot is essentially already a manipulation unto itself like a David Lachapelle shoot.*

    What impresses me is the process…I went from the darkroom to Photoshop and never really looked back. Seeing all the work needed to achieve this look makes me appreciate it all on a technical level…but beyond that it’s just damn fun to look at. Quite the storyteller…may not win a pulitzer but it shows just how fun images can be when we take reality out of the mix. Amazed he’s not more well known today since…well hell…many do this kinda stuff on some level or another in the Alt Photography world.**

    *All minus the now infamous Paris Hilton shoot. That was just pure genius. A bit Nostradamus like too.

    **Whatever Alt Photography actually is these days.

    What constitutes a “straight” image anyhow? An image all done in camera or something pure like an image meant for say the AP?

  2. R. Says:

    Ahh, photomanipulation. It’s almost like how “straight” artists freak out over digital artists, telling them that they aren’t doing “real” art. Poppycock, I say. To me the feeling conveyed is what makes art art in the first place.

    I’m amazed also that William Mortensen isn’t very well known these days. Photomanipulation isn’t a stranger to the photography world.

  3. Red Scharlach Says:

    Unrelated, but you really should mention this: Patrick McGoohan died yesterday.

  4. Infamous Amos Says:

    I wonder how many people whose work I admire have been publicly called the anti-christ. A few, I should think.

  5. Paul Komoda Says:

    I will have to look further into his body of work. that first image of the gentleman with the disembodied hand gouging his eyes reminds me of a similar image drawn by Stanislav Szukalski.

  6. Jerem Morrow Says:

    @ R.

    I hear that argument all too often! Gah, but it makes me sick. And enraged. At this point, I just try and walk away.

  7. rickie Says:

    thanks for this, nadya! will be checking him out.

  8. Justin Cormack Says:

    I just came across the wikipedia entry and I am trying to expand it! disgraceful!

  9. Creative Commons Monday [Free Minds, Free Culture] Says:

    […] been described as ‘Photoshop the shit out of it.’ at a time before Photoshop existed : http://coilhouse.net/2009/01/william-mortensen-the-anti-ansel/. He was primarily a Hollywood photographer in the 1930′s, so I’d think that some heavy […]