Volume 15, Issue 42  | May 26, 2023Subscribe

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The waning days of William Mortensen at the Laguna Art Museum


There are photographers who take pictures, and photographers who make pictures. And there are photographers who capture an image, and those who seek to evoke an emotion. William Mortensen (1897-1965) is the latter in each category. Both revered and reviled within his lifetime (his contemporary, Ansel Adams, referred to Mortensen as the “antichrist”), Mortensen made a name for himself in Hollywood and, later, in Laguna Beach. Described as both a maverick and a master, his images are sometimes sexual, often grotesque, but always intriguing. He photographed motion picture icons like Fay Wray, Cecil B. DeMille and Marlene Dietrich, and he photographed everyday people (many of whom resided in Laguna, where he lived and operated his photography studio from 1931 until his death in 1965). 

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Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

William Mortensen’s “Preparation for the Sabbot” (1927)

One of the only museum exhibitions of Mortensen’s work, and easily the most extensive, has been on display at Laguna Art Museum (LAM) since early October. It will close on Sunday, Jan. 15. Before it does, however, LAM is hosting a panel discussion of experts, scholars and collectors of Mortensen’s work this Saturday evening, January 7. Artist and academic Larry Lytle has written extensively about Mortensen and his influences. He will moderate a conversation between Dennis Reed, Michael Dawson and Stuart Balcomb, exploring the impact Mortensen had on 20th century photography and how Mortensen’s early eccentric techniques presaged the future of the artform.

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Mortensen scholar Larry Lytle will lead a panel discussion of the photographer’s work on Saturday, Jan. 7, at LAM

As a dedicated master of pictorialism, Mortensen’s ideas threatened purist photographers who believed that photos should faithfully and accurately represent the real world. “Pictorialism was a movement that began in the very late 19th century and extended into the 20th century with photographers who tried to make photographs either look like art – in other words they altered things to look more painterly – or tried to explore ideas like emotional qualities,” said Lytle. “They were hated by the purist photographers, like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who wanted photography to tell the truth and not look like anything other than a photograph.”

Mortensen, in contrast, manipulated his negatives using a variety of methods and tools. He scratched the film with razor blades, pens and pumice. He used textured screens and various pigment processing techniques to achieve images that looked more like paintings than photographs. And he incorporated several psychological techniques that controlled the viewer’s gaze, much as magicians control the gaze of their spectators. Mortensen distilled these practices in his 1937 book The Command to Look (to which Lytle contributed an essay in the 2014 reprint)

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William Mortensen’s “Photography & Seduction” at LAM will close on January 15

In Mortensen On the Negative, the photographer dedicated the book 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.” 

Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

A brief video tour of the extensive installation of William Mortensen’s work, currently on display at LAM through January 15

“Dennis Reed is an expert in [pictorialism] and also in pre-WWII Japanese American and modernist photography,” said Lytle. “I want to ask him how he first encountered Mortensen’s work. What made Reed want to collect his photography, given the fact that Mortensen had been reviled for so many years? How did Mortensen fit into his collecting aesthetic? Particularly with the Japanese American photographers who were very modernist in terms of design and they leaned heavily on traditional Japanese design in their photography. Mortensen was largely the opposite, so I want to understand that.”

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Stuart Balcomb’s father, Robert, studied with Mortensen in the 1950s and wrote Me and Mortensen: Photography with the Master in 2013. “My role on the panel is to provide an inside view,” said Balcomb. “I was there on the ground, growing up with my dad who was studying with Mortensen. My earliest memories are peering over my dad’s darkroom sink. I must have been 3 years old. I had a little footstool so my nose could just barely reach over the lip of the sink under that red developer light. I remember looking down into his developer trays and watching that blank piece of paper gradually emerge with an image. It was just magic to me. I witnessed a lot.”

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(L-R) Stuart Balcomb and Larry Lytle will appear at the Museum on Saturday, Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. in a panel discussion on Mortensen’s work

Dawson is also a longtime collector and photography book dealer and art appraiser. “I want to know how Michael thinks Mortensen’s books fit into the history of photographic books because that is one of Michael’s specialties – not only Los Angeles and California history books but also photography books,” said Lytle. “Does he think they still hold their importance or does he see them as a fragment from that era? A kind of standalone historical thing? More importantly, I want to talk about Mortensen’s handmade books and very low print books like The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, The Seven Ages of Women, Camera Studies, King of Kings and how that fits into what photographers were doing at the time.”

Lytle knows of no other contemporary photographers who emulate Mortensen’s techniques. Not even other devotees of the macabre and grotesque, like Joel-Peter Witkin or Cindy Sherman.

“Mortensen is one of those artists that happen every once in a while in the history of art that become a signpost to what is going to happen,” said Lytle. “They create something that will happen a little later on, predicting future possibilities within this artform.”

In the modern age of Instagram filters and photo manipulation, Mortensen was indeed ahead of his time. “One of the really interesting things about him is the way he controlled his image,” said Lytle. “Like a lot of celebrities did, he took a lot of that from the film industry and fan magazines, [taking lessons from] how they painted pictures of these stars. Behind the scenes, of course, they were doing all kinds of naughty things. But Mortensen very much controlled the public perception of who and what he was.”

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Photo by Jeff Rovner

Mortensen’s eccentric techniques and use of psychology commanded attention and controlled the viewer’s gaze

Mortensen was so reviled by Adams because of the threat he posed to the art world’s acceptance of the medium. If photography could evolve to include previously unimaged artistic possibilities, what did it mean for the artform’s future? And how are those implications playing out today in our current culture of hyper-manipulation and control of the viewer’s gaze? 

If you haven’t yet been introduced to one of our town’s hidden historic gems, your opportunity is fading fast. Having access not only to this extensive body of work but also these scholarly minds on the subject is a rare event and one not to be missed. 

For more information on Photography & Seduction: William Mortensen’s Laguna Beach and the panel discussion, visit the LAM website by clicking here. The event is scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $7 for members and $14 for non-members. Reservations are recommended.

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In Memoriam - Stu Saffer and Barbara Diamond.

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