Lambasted as the “Anti-Christ” by Ansel Adams and given the sinister thumbs –up by Satanist Anton LeVey, William Mortensen was the perennial bad boy of photography at the height of his career during the 1920’s-1950’s. Eroticism and torture, the occult and the divine; Mortensen’s groundbreaking exploration of in-your-face themes during a closed-doors era established him as a talent way before his time.
Embracing the salacious and the morose as his muses, he introduced his own surrealist spin on pictorial photography; a movement known for its painting style aesthetic and mood-evoking lighting. Typically drawing from the Romantic era, Mortensen dismissed the traditional high-brow imagery of Pictorialsm as the “Fuzzy-Wuzzy” school of photography and instead, leveraged the style’s unique use of contrast to get down and dirty with themes of sex and violence. Demonized by the play-it-safe, straight-laced likes of photography contemporary Ansel Adams and his cronies that made up Group f/64, Mortensen would also come to be esteemed as the forbearer of photo manipulation with his unique, technical experimentation.
The Rick Baker of his time, Mortensen cut his teeth in cinema as a make-up artist and still film photographer. After a stint with art school in New York, Mortensen hopped on his motorcycle and headed to Babylon where he trained with Hollywood heavyweights Cecil B. DeMille and Ferdinand Pinney Earle.
He went on to photograph such leading ladies as Jean Harlow and Fay Wray, a glitzy foray into Mortensen’s obsession with racy sirens. Later, monster maestro, Lon Chaney, Senior introduced him to horror, the other side of his conjoined theme of Madonnas and Monster (to borrow a title from his book). Mortensen honed his craft at working with collodieon make-up by transforming Chaney into a tribal, paraplegic stage magician in Tod Browning’s (of Freaks fame) melodrama, West of Zanzibar.
His success in Hollywood soon led to the launch of his own photography studio where he surrounded himself with a Lynchian entourage of “midgets, acromegalic giants fat ladies, pinheads, dog-faced boys, bearded ladies, and all the weird residue of defunct circuses.”
And, that’s just the beginning.
Although Mortensen earned a badass badge of honor by stirring up the masses with his provocative imagery, he sadly fell into obscurity despite leaving behind a prolific collection and school dedicated to his pioneering craft which set the stage for early Photoshop techniques. Now, Mortensen’s work has returned to be viewed by a modern, more accepting audience, one that celebrates saints and sinners equally and digests the macabre in melodrama snack bites (think American Horror Story).
Publisher Feral House is releasing American Grotesque, a compendium of Mortensen’s phantasmal photos and a larger-than-life biography that documents occult dabblings, illicit affairs and film industry insights that rival his mesmerizing body of work. A perfect bookend, Feral House has also re-published the rare and coveted, Command to Look, Mortensen’s “irreverent and revolutionary” photography guide, including an essay on how his images influenced the “lesser magic” of The Church of Satan founder, Anton LeVey.
Just in time for Halloween, Mortensen’s collection is now on display at Stephen Romano Gallery in Brooklyn until November 29th. You can find more information about American Grotesque on the Feral House site.