Provocateur. Antichrist. Photography’s first superstar. These are a few ways admirers and critics have described early 20th century American photographer William Mortensen (1897-1965), whose photography is often characterized as grotesque due to their violent and erotic tableaus. While some may be repelled by his images, Mortensen has a following of avid fans; fine art prints go for thousands of dollars these days. Never heard of Mortensen? Then make your way to the NYC Book & Ephemera Fair March 9 and 10 at the Sheraton Central Pk/Times Sq. where an exhibition called “Celluloid Babylon” will display some of his most titillating portraits.
Born in 1897 in Park City, Utah, Mortensen ended up in Hollywood as a designer of sets, costumes, and masks for movies like West of Zanzibar (1928) and A Lover's Oath (1925). Cecil DeMille became a close friend and professional ally, notably working together on The King of Kings (1927). By chance, Mortensen decided to take some live photos during the film’s production instead of staged shots that were typical of the time. DeMille loved the result and encouraged Mortensen to pursue photography as a career, which Mortensen did, eventually opening his own studio on Hollywood Boulevard in the late 1920s.
Something of a photo alchemist, Mortensen combined his photographs with others and retouched them using glamour shots, religious relics, mythological creatures, and scenes of the occult. He shot the biggest stars of the day, too: Clara Bow, Rudolph Valentino, and Lon Chaney, among many others.
“I think the underlying theme of his oeuvre is the revival of lost taboos in spiritual practices,” explains Brian Chidester, art historian and curator of the exhibition.
Chidester says that Mortensen predated Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung in their quests to find connections between various religions. “I think Mortensen understood that there are fundamental similarities [among religions]. He wasn't documenting stories, but looking for visual correlations between world religion and mythology.”
In a telling comment, Mortensen wrote: “'Purity' is conceived to consist in limiting photographic expression to the mechanically objective representation that is inherent in the uncontrolled camera … [but] Imagination is a wayward and willful wench, and when she is on the loose she is not to be held in check by any arbitrary boundaries that divide one medium from another."
Mortensen’s works were well-received during his day and he found financial success. He authored The Command to Look (1937, reprinted 2014), his pictures were published in magazines like Vanity Fair, and at one point he had a weekly photograph column in The Los Angeles Times. In 1931 he opened the Mortensen School of Photography in Laguna Beach that welcomed 3,000 pupils.
But not everyone was a fan. No less than realist photographer Ansel Adams called Mortensen the “Anti-Christ” because he was “muddying the waters with this illusionist narrative work,” Chidester explains.
Mortensen’s images may not seem daring to modern sensibilities today, but the treatment of his subjects and the method of producing photos were quite unusual for his time. His images often portray sexualized women with a twist of brutality. For instance, his Salomé (1923) showcases a woman holding a mask over her genitals. Mary Magdalene becomes an alluring creature in a still for King of Kings. His techniques of adding to photos with cutouts and rubbings added another unexpected quality. This kind of retouching was in direct contrast with Ansel Adams and Group f/64 who described pure photography as “possessing no qualities of technique, composition, or idea derivative of any other art form.”
However, Mortensen’s star faded. Fashions changed and people were attracted to more realist imagery. It didn’t help that Adams and Group f/64 used their contacts with historians and academics to effectively keep Mortensen out of the 20th century narrative of art and photography. Still, Mortensen had his die-hard fans; horror actor Vincent Price, collected his work and narrated a short Mortensen biopic called Monsters and Madonnas (1963). It wasn’t until the 1990s when collectors interested in vernacular and oddball photography helped revitalize interest in Mortensen.
As a collector, Chidester was drawn to Mortensen's earliest work, i.e. his lobby cards, because "they display both something spontaneous and they reveal a kind of accidental genius… who had a real eye for illusion.” In addition to 84 framed Mortensen prints, the March show will include objects like cameras, masks, lobby cards, and published works.
Chidester thought the exhibition would be a great fit for the fair because many attendees are collectors of ephemera and various subcultures—themes that align well with the Mortensen ethos. “Contrary to the assertions of Adams, Mortensen was no naïve illusionist photographer living in the past,” says Chidester. “He was radically spiritual and an immensely talented pictorialist.”
Elisa Shoenberger is a researcher and writer. She has published articles and essays at the Boston Globe, the Rumpus, Electric Lit, and other outlets. She is a regular contributor to Book Riot and is the co-editor and co-founder of The Antelope: A Journal of Oral History and Mayhem.