Tuesday, May 24, 2011

William Mortensen

William Herbert Mortensen (1897 - 1965)
Since discovering Mortensen several years ago and reading about his life and subsequent journey into obscurity, he has been a major influence for me. Although most of his work has been lost, the images that did survive are a tribute to his genius, in his book "Mortensen on the Negative" he wrote; "Dedicated to the real photographers of the world - to those who, with their second-hand equipment and their makeshift darkrooms, are today fighting their solitary battles with their recalcitrant medium, not for money or for glory, but because they would rather make pictures than anything else in the world." ~ William Mortensen, Simon and Schuster, 1940.
The Model
"The Model" is Myrdith Monaghan, William Mortensen's second wife. 

During my search for more information I came across a very informative, insightful and biographical look into his life in an article written by J. Stephen Gillette, one of his former photography students. In the article he recalls an episode when he first arrived at Mortensen's School of Photography: 

"The second day of school we had a model- and she was naked! Plus, I was supposed to photograph her. Here I was a kid from Nebraska, only 16 years old, and had never before seen a naked lady. This had to be the most difficult day of my young life. Looking back, I guess the gods were on my side that day because it was also the first time this model had ever appeared naked before a camera."

"Mr. Mortensen realized the difficulty and the uncomfortable position we were both in and explained that nakedness is an awkward situation. It is like being in a dark room without any clothes and suddenly the lights come on and there is a stranger of the opposite sex looking at you. Nudity on the other hand is a beautiful situation. It's like skinny-dipping with your friends on a beautiful summer day at your favorite swimming hole. We talked at great length about the beautiful nudes done by the great artists of the world. Before long, the model and I were very comfortable with our newfound situations."

Nude With Peacock
"Mortensen was considered an anachronism in photography, an outsider in a field that rejected the theatrical set-ups, retouching and strong imaginative subject matter. Ansel Adams, high priest of the straight print, described Mortensen as both "the devil" and "the anti-Christ." Historians seem to have sided with Adams, as there are few mentions of Mortensen in most of the major photo histories." ~ Cary Loren
In his book "The Model - - A Book on the Problems of Posing" Mortensen wrote;
“To be sure, emotion is frequently the thing that is expressed in a picture - and this fact is, no doubt, the cause of the tendency to over-emphasize the importance of emotion as a pictorial element. Emotion may be expressed, or the utter lack of it may be expressed ; but the only important fact is that of expression. Thoughts and emotions cannot be photographed, despite the protestations of some mystically minded portraitists. What can be photographed are the physical manifestations of thoughts and emotions. Physical fact is ultimately the sole pictorial material. But expression is not achieved by the unselective recording of the physical fact. For, ultimately, these physical manifestations of thoughts and emotions are not actually clearly marked or differentiated.”

During the 1920's Mortensen took still photographs on movie sets for the Hollywood film industry, instead of using the big 8 x 10 inch camera he would crawl around the set with a small camera and take pictures during the actual filming. This had never been done before and the photographs were so successful that Cecil B. DeMille had albums of these magnificent stills made up and had them sent to libraries around the world. One was accepted by the Vatican.
Nude In Desert
Also during this time in the 20's he took thousands of nudes, of them, a mere half dozen survived because some time later, in a self-critical frenzy, he destroyed the lot. Even later, as his health no doubt began to fail and the prevailing opinion of his work was negative at the time, Mortensen must have felt his work would never be appreciated and I believe even more was lost around the time of his death.
Venus and Vulcan
"Photography, like any other art, is a form of communication. The artist is not blowing bubbles for his own gratification, but is speaking a language, is telling somebody something. Three corollaries are derived from this proposition.
a. As a language, art fails unless it is clear and unequivocal in saying what it means.
b. Ideas may be communicated, not things.
c. Art expresses itself, as all languages do, in terms of symbols."
William Mortensen, "Venus and Vulcan 5. A Manifesto and a Prophecy," Camera Craft 41, no. 6 (July 1934)


  1. This was one of the best, if not the best, posts I have ever read in our growing nude bloggie world. I loved your subject, as well as all the photographs you incorporated into it. Please grace us with more of this type of writing. I will definitely look into this person Mr. Mortensen. Thank you. I love it when others raise the bar. Keep up the good work!

  2. "Nude In Desert" made me smile, and instantly reminded me of your own works. Wonderful article, thank you ...

  3. Thanks for sharing his story and turning us on to his work.