"The Celluloid Babylon" is an exhibition of the early twentieth century photography of visionary artist William Mortensen curated by author/art historian Brian Chidester, courtesy of the Stephen Romano Gallery. Mortensen was, by all reports, the accidental inventor of the movie lobby card. As a costume designer on Cecile B. DeMille's epic Hollywood film, The King of Kings, the artist decided one day to snap photographs of his handiwork whilst the actors were moving around in his opulent ensembles. Director DeMille saw immediately the marketing potential of having such images available prior to the film's release and the rest, as they say, is history.
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By the early 1930s, however, Mortensen decided to quit this day job altogether and focus exclusively on his own private photography practice. Integrating the elaborate costumes and set designs of his movie work into evocative still images he then became something of an anachronism in the era of Ansel Adams and the New Realists of the 1930s and '40s. Portraits of ancient Hindu goddesses, witch doctors, and Egyptian princesses stand in stark contrast to the non-illusory images of Western mountain peaks and desert flatlands; as do ominous scenes of satanic rituals, carnivalesque monsters haunting everyday people, and vengeful gorillas (the latter of which Mortensen executed several years prior to RKO's landmark 1933 film King Kong). Yet the artist not only continued championing the illusionary and narrative potential of studio photography; he even started a school of photography in Laguna Beach, CA, and published a dozen books on his unorthodox approach.
By the 1950s Mortensen was sadly forgotten and his work nearly lost to time. Stephen Romano first encountered his photos in the 1990s and immediately recognized their strange allure. He went on a quest over the next twenty years to recover as much of the artist's lost work as possible. For this show the historian (along with author Chidester) has chosen to focus on Mortensen's earliest breakthroughs in the post-Silent Movie Era. By juxtaposing key images from the artist's private oeuvre with lobby cards photographed by Mortensen himself (as well as archival masks and other set pieces), the viewer is treated to a smattering of strange, fantasy worlds which document the dawn of Hollywood culture and capture one of the more unique perspectives from within it.