The photographic art of William Mortensen (1897-1965) will be featured at this year’s DARK MOFO festival in Tasmania
THE FIRST MAJOR EXHIBITION OF WILLIAM MORTENSEN’S ART OUTSIDE OF THE USA
The photographic art of William Mortensen (1897-1965) will be featured at this year’s DARK MOFO festival in Tasmania as part of curator Brenden Walls’ INVISIBLE HOUSE exhibition at the Salamanca Arts Centre (13-24 June, 2018, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia).
The exhibition is comprised of 30 works from the collection of the Stephen Romano Gallery, many of which are exhibited publicly for the first time ever, as they were recently acquired from the estate of William Mortensen’s first wife Courtney Crawford (and as such have been hidden from the public for almost 90 years). The exhibition also features new work by renowned Australian esoteric artist Barry William Hale, who has drawn authentic magic sigils onto four photo-gravure reproductions from the 1936 edition of William Mortensen’s own book Monsters and Madonnas.
Born in 1897, Mortensen began his photographic career taking portraits of Hollywood actors and actresses, as well as film stills from various movie sets, during the 1920s. After being blacklisted in Hollywood in 1931, he moved to the artist community of Laguna Beach, California, where he kept a private art studio and founded the William Mortensen School of Photography.
During a career which lasted four-plus decades, the artist preferred a pictorial style, whereby he could manipulate photographs to produce romantic, painterly-like effects. This style brought him direct criticism from the straight photographers of the modern realist movement, and in particular spawned a prolonged written debate with Ansel Adams, who referred to Mortensen as “The Anti Christ.”
In recent years a renewed interest in Mortensen’s work has arisen—particularly for his development of manipulation techniques and layering, each labor-intensive in the years prior to Photoshop and other contemporary design techniques. In 2014 the Stephen Romano Gallery mounted the first major exhibition of William Mortensen’s art in over 20 years, in association with the release of the William Mortensen retrospective book published by Feral House, both entitled William Mortensen: American Grotesque. The current exhibition at INVISIBLE HOUSE should only add to the mystique and profundity of this immensely influential artist.
William Mortensen Reconsidered by A. D. Coleman
The inclusion of William Mortensen in our current understanding of the history of photography marks an end to the long-term injustice done to the man and germinal work.
Anathematized, ostracized, and eventually purged from the dominant narratives of 20th-century photography due to the biases of a small but influential cluster of historians, curators, and photographers, Mortensen plunged into an obscurity so deep that by 1980 most considered him unworthy of even a footnote. Yet the approach to the medium that he advocated, under the rubric of “pictorialism,” included practices central to photography of the past four decades: events staged for the camera, image text combinations, photomontage, “alternative processes,” and more.
Morensen not only exemplified those tendencies in his own widely exhibited and published works but argued vigorously for them in cogent, controversial articles that appeared in the photo magazines of his day, therein contending articulately and persuasively with such vehement antagonists as Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall. Furthermore, he invented several unusual darkroom processes, devised and marketed some printmaking tools, ran a school for photographers in Laguna Beach, CA and authored a series of highly regarded tutorial texts that guided several generations of practitioners.
So, inevitably, the cycle of appreciation and disregard that affects art and artists in all media returned him to our attention. Regrettably, however, the neglect of Mortensen and his contributions in the last years of his life and for several decades thereafter resulted in the apparently haphazard dispersal of his archive: master prints, work prints, negatives, manuscripts, correspondence, notes… scattered and, for the most part, presumed lost. So we must cherish those salvaged bits and pieces that survive. If the critical literature on this notable figure seems thin, we can attribute that in good part to the scarcity of primary source materials. The recovery of any substantial slice, such as these works from the estate of Hereward Carrington, brings us a step closer to grasping the full scope of his work as a picture-maker and the relation of his images to his ideas.
A. D. Coleman is an independent critic, historian, and lecturer specializing in photography and photo-based art. Since 2005, exhibitions he has curated have opened in Canada, China, Finland, Italy, Rumania, Slovakia, and the U.S. He has published 8 books and more than 2000 essays on photography and related subjects. His work has been translated into 21 languages and published in 31 countries.
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