William Mortensen – The Antichrist of American Photography in the House of the Devil

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By Adam Parfrey

A few decades ago we spent a good deal of time at Anton LaVey’s “black house” in San Francisco’s Richmond District.

On the walls and on the shelves were a lot of items to look at and consider. One photograph, seen in the kitchen, was a framed and signed photograph of a hunching woman overlapped by a depraved cloaked ghost. The photo was called “Fear,” and it was the work of  William Mortensen (1897 – 1965).

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William Mortensen “Fear” c. 1930’s (also titled “Obsession”) Manipulted Photograph

Anton spoke of Mortensen’s influence in guiding him to understand the mechanics of “Lesser Magic,” or what affects people’s reaction to what they see and absorb.

Mortensen’s photographs like “Fear” are fascinating, but for years I resisted Mortensen’s reductive ideas regarding human behavior. It all seemed too reptilian to me. But there came the time when researcher Larry Lytle approached me about publishing a monograph on William Mortensen. This was a book we needed, a major figure of 20th century photography who was put aside by a new school of photography. Time had come to reconsider “The Master.”

The interesting thing about Mortensen, I felt, was his bravery in approaching occult, grotesque and extreme material. And that’s the emphasis of the American Grotesque book. A large, 300 page book that includes his life story, techniques, aesthetic battles, and loads of images never before published.

We realized that we had published Mortensen’s work before, as the cover image of Manly P. Hall for the Process Media book, Master of the Mysteries.

American Grotesque could not begin to cover everything interesting about William Mortensen and his work. So we decided to reprint Mortensen’s The Command to Look, and expand it with background on Mortensen’s own beliefs and his influence upon occultists like Anton LaVey.

These two Feral House books aim to recover appreciation for this extraordinary photographer and his methods. What an exciting time at Feral Acres.

We have the two books available, and there have been large Mortensen exhibition at the Stephen Romano Gallery in Brooklyn, and following that a Mortensen exhibition at Roq LaRue Gallery in Seattle, then one at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles.

William Mortensen’s time has come again.

 

From Feral House, click images for more information or to order books.

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Gallery of works by William Mortensen (1895 – 1965):

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William Mortensen, “Myrdith on Broom” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c, 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c, 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c, 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c, 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Mark of the Borgia” c, 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Off to the Sabbath” c, 1930 manipulated photograph 

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William Mortensen “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c. 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c. 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c. 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c. 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c. 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft” c. 1926 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “Anna May Wong” c, 1924 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “Monsters and Madonnas”

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William Mortensen “A Spider Torture” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “The Pendulum” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “Mary of Magdala” c, 1928 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “The Vampire” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “The Vampire” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Death of Hypatia” c 1930 manipulated photograph. manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Thunder” c 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Belphegor” c 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “The Faternity of Alchemists” c 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “L’Amour” c 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “American Grotesque” exhibition in Brooklyn NY 2014

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William Mortensen, “Venus and Vulcan” c 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “La Magic Noir” c 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Madame de Pompadour” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “The Scream” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Untitled” c, 1925 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Woman of Arles” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Manly Hall” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Untitled” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Woman with Skull” c, 1925 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “American Grotesque” exhibition in Brooklyn NY 2014

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William Mortensen, “Nicolo Paganini” c, 1925 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “The Moving Finger Writes” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Human relations 1932” manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen, “Galileo” c, 1930 manipulated photograph

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William Mortensen “American Grotesque” exhibition in Brooklyn NY 2014

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William Mortensen, “Give Us This Day” c, 1930 manipulated photograph