Born in 1897, William Mortensen was once one of Hollywood’s leading portrait and glamour photographers. Yet his expressionist aesthetics, influenced by the paintings of Goya, Friedrich and Bosch, led to an increasing fascination with the strange, the gothic and the occult; and it took him down a different path.
Mortensen’s mises-en-scenes became the stuff of legend. A director as much as a photographer, he would assemble actors from the Los Angeles repertoire and dress them (or undress them) for his freeze-frame morality plays. Props and backdrops were borrowed from the studios. Poses were mannered and bodies manipulated. Together they formed a dark subcultural landscape, steeped in the history of art and myth.
The results were dynamic and unsettling. Mortensen’s intense overlays combined traditional print-making with re-touching, alongside mirror distortions and hand-applications of texture. There were photographs which read more like etchings, and multiple exposures reminscent of classic spiritualist photography.
These ground-breaking techniques made Mortensen’s off-kilter content all the more complicated to read. Despite his credentials as a leading image-maker and educator, as well as a photography school in Laguna Beach, Mortensen found himself gradually excluded and finally rejected by the photographic community.
Only now, almost 100 years later, has his work been re-evaluated. A retrospective of his work, American Grotesquewas published in 2014 to critical acclaim; and Mortensen’s prints were a key inclusion in Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012.