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					William Mortensen

Nude Study, 1926
Human Relations, 1932

“Because of their direct sensory
appeal, pictures are perhaps the
most effective form that
propaganda can take . . . The
human comedy is his. Joining with
the sardonic amusement of the
satirist, he may castigate human
absurdities, obscenities, and
brutalities, and seek the reform of
humanity by revealing to it its own

•William Mortensen
*William Mortensen
          Mortensen's wife Myrdith posed for this
        photograph. He blocked out her arms and
       head on the negative with a permanganate
         solution* and added the nicks and scars
                              with a sharp blade.

Mortensen, between 1932 and 1935, ran the
Mortensen School of Photography in Laguna
Beach, where some 3,000 students took his
  courses. He worked almost entirely in the
         studio, creating elaborate symbolist
  allegories, filled with demons, grotesques,
       and beautiful women, often ravaged.
His recurrent themes of madness, death, corruption, torture and
occultism, though imbued with a romantic sensibility, and his use of
decidedly impure materials and techniques—paper negatives, gum
and bromide prints, combination printing, easel tilting and hand-
drawn elements-- outraged the Purists, led by Ansel Adams.
  Mortensen’s instructional books, which employ satirical humor to cushion the heavy
 scientific content, were “from the standpoint of contemporary pictorialism, what Ansel
Adams’s volumes on craft were in relation to the so-called purist aesthetic: the invaluable
               codification and clear exposition of hermeneutic principles.”
                                     •A.D. Coleman
American Girl
This photograph appeared on the cover of
the second brochure for the Mortensen
School of Photography, and was also the
frontispiece for his book Pictorial Lighting.
  In the 1930’s, Adams and Mortensen were
invited to write a series of point-counterpoint
articles for the magazine Camera Craft. This
       debate raged on for the better part of a
decade, with Mortensen defending the rights
         of the photographer to use directorial
    methods, and Adams ranting defensively
                 about “vital checks of taste.”

                                                  Made from a miniature camera negative;
                                                  bromoil transfer. Published in The Complete
                                                  Photographer, An Encyclopedia of Photography,
                                                  Vol. II, 1942.
                          In the course of their Camera Craft debate,
                          Mortensen published the provocative “Quest for
                          Pure Form,” a self-portrait that openly mocked
                          Purism. Adams’ moral outrage eventually
                          escalated into outright hatred:

                                   “ . . . briefly put he wanted him dead,
                                   and said as much on several
                                   occasions. In a letter to Mortensen,
                                   meant for the debate but never
                                   published, Adams waxed positively
                                   vitriolic: `how soon photography
                                   achieves the position of a great social
                                   and aesthetic instrument of
                                   expression depends on how soon
                                   you and your co-workers of shallow
                                   vision negotiate oblivion.’”

                                   • A.D. Coleman

The Quest for Pure Form
                  The Pit and the Pendulum
            From Monsters & Madonnas, 1935
"The cement floor was converted into cobble stones
          by the use of a 1/8-inch hopping brush..."

   “(Mortensen) was actually purged from the
       history of photography in what seems a
  deliberate attempt to break the movement’s
     back. He disappeared from photographic
  history at the peak of his creative life, at the
height of his fame and influence, and certainly
                       not by his own volition.”
                                  •A.D. Coleman
                                                    Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who had
                                                    insinuated themselves as preeminent
                                                    authorities on modern photography, were
                                                    entangled in elaborate personal and
                                                    professional relationships with members of
                                                    the Group f/64, particularly Weston and
                                                    Adams. Together, they went to great
                                                    lengths to discredit Pictorialism in general
                                                    and Mortensen in particular. The creation of
                                                    the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of
                                                    Photography, with Newhall as director and
                                                    Adams as his consultant, made the purist
                                                    purge “official policy of the contemporary
                                                    art establishment.”

Stone surface rendering and inscription done with
charcoal pencil.
From Monsters & Madonnas, 1935.
In Mortensen’s words, " academic study, a
tentative effort at capturing in pictorial terms
the universal symbolism of the nude...."

 By 1940, the names of “virtually all
 pictorialists” had been omitted from
 MoMA’s giant exhibit, “Photography 1839-
 1927.” This came in the wake of Adams’
 “The Pageant of Photography” exhibition,
 which toured the country sans
 Pictorialism, in 1939-40.
        In the 1937 and 1964 editions of
            Newhall’s definitive History of
Photography, Mortensen’s name is never
       mentioned. During a photography
 conference in 1981, Coleman surprised
  the gathering by speaking on the issue
                 of the Mortensen purge.

     On the spot, Newhall retorted that he
      found Mortensen’s work “perverse,”
     adding that it “was his history and he
could disinvite whomever he pleased.” In
       the midst of a Guggenheim funded
  revision, Newhall promised that he was
at last going to mention Mortensen—“but
         only to discredit him!” In the 1982
         edition, an obligatory mention ran
            unaccompanied by samples of
                         Mortensen’s work.

                        The Possessed
               “Group /64 formulated an aesthetic
               that . . . was a violent reaction to the
               weak, sentimental style then popular
               with pictorial photography in
               California, as seen particularly in the
               anecdotal, highly sentimental, mildly
               erotic hand-colored prints of William

               Newhall’s History of Photography,

Pouring Milk
Fascinated with the
Renaissance, Mortensen
recreated famous figures
from history.
   Mortensen anticipated by decades an entire
generation of contemporary photographers who
 are considered by the critics, gallery directors,
        museum curators, and leaders of the art
 business, to be at the cutting edge. Examples:
        the MoMA paying a million dollars for 48
        images by Cindy Sherman, and Artnews
       selecting Sherman as one of the 25 most
 influential artists of the 20th Century. If indeed
 she is, then it might be argued that Mortensen
                          won that famous debate.

  In Defense of William Mortensen & the C.C.P
                               by Ira H. Latour

                                                                           Niccolo Machiavelli
                                                                An example of pencil technique and
                                                         costuming with simple fabrics. By hopping
                                                        out the tone with the Abrasion Process, the
                        By Cindy Sherman              cloud on the left was made to conform to the
                                                                    photographic cloud on the right.
           What is characteristic of this post-modern,
           eclectic, and very pluralistic generation?
           Well, for starters, certain 19th century
           elements, such as the Nihilism of Sergey
           Genadievich Nechayev and the Umwertung
           alle Werte of Nietsche, the over-turning of
           established values. Much of it,
           characteristically, appropriates, down-
           loads, imports, faxes and manipulates the
           photographic image, mixes in collage and
           montage in shaped formats, and alters
           processes, combines optical image with
           brush, and overlays, abrades, veils, hides
           or disguises it with painterly effect, and
           uses multimedia in the process. One form
           morphs to another via the computer, a new

           •Ira H. Latour

The Kiss
The contemporary mocks tradition and the "good technique"
espoused by "the mythic f.64 School." Contemporary
photographers look for the "different," often exploiting the
unfortunate as freak shows once did, contrive stories both
theatrical and narcissistic, search out bizarre and perverse
themes and sexual anomalies, make use of masochistic
elements (such as the darker images of Robert Mapplethorpe
and Joel-Peter Witkin), and strive for the requisite shock.
They combine images with Mannerist lettering, and with text
and stories penned by a hand not styled in Miss Smith's
penmanship class. In short, contemporaries follow much the
same path Mortensen trod over two generations ago.

                                              •Ira H. Latour


                                  By Joel-Peter Witkin, 1982
Naomi Rosenblum gives credit, along with Edmund Teske, Clarence John Laughlin and
others, to Mortensen for the early use of some of these techniques, and for exploring, as
Laughlin's explained, "the unreality of the real and the reality of the unreal.” This is not to
suggest that Mortensen was responsible for this revolution, only that his work anticipated

•Ira H. Latour