New York

William Mortensen

Daniel Wolf Gallery

It seems almost as if I’m mouthing a cliché when I say that, since the ’60s, there has been a progressive blurring of the boundaries between once separate art media and between art forms and popular imagery. Although artists have been working in the interfaces between various media consistently for almost two decades their efforts have only recently begun to affect the policies and attitudes of curators, critics and historians, who are now looking to explore this wholistic genre and even setting up situations in which interactions between media can take place. As two recent shows attest, these explorations may well influence the ways in which the public perceives art history and contemporary art forms as well as popular imagery and the media.

The exhibition of William Mortensen’s photographs was an indication that changing contemporary art forms are indeed influencing the perception of art history. Mortensen, who died in 1965. was best known during the 1920s and ’30s. As director of the Mortensen School of Photography, he published nine books and scores of articles which colorfully described both his theory and his practical techniques. Mortensen’s early artistic training, at the Art Students League in New York, was in painting and drawing. When he switched to photography, he incorporated many of his skills in these areas into his work: a “directorial” photographer who believed that images should be the products of imagination rather than descriptions of facts, he advocated the use of any manipulations and alterations of the photographic print necessary to express the photographer’s sensibility. This esthetic philosophy has not been particularly popular in photographic circles since the 1920s. During the ’30s the “Purist” Edward Weston, who championed straight photography as the only modernist form of expression, and the “Pictorialist” Mortensen clashed head-on in a series of articles in Camera Craft magazine. The Purists won that round, and have remained dominant in the photographic field ever since (as the policies and exhibitions of the Photography Department at MoMA will attest), and in the aftermath of his defeat Mortensen was essentially written out of photographic history. It is only now, when artists and the public are taking an active interest in contemporary “altered” photographs (especially in California, where Mortensen lived and worked most of his life), that this artist’s work is finally being rediscovered and reassessed.

This exhibition was based on a show curated by Deborah Irmas and originally seen at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. The earliest images on view were from Mortensen’s days in Hollywood, where he moved in 1921 in order to earn a living designing sets, making masks and photographing actors and actresses. He was most affected by Cecil B. De Mille, for whom he did the stills for King of Kings, and throughout his career his “directorial” photographs, with their emphasis on story-telling, period costumes, character make-up and elaborate sets, find their esthetic roots in the glorious days of the silent screen.

Mortensen’s photographs are crystallizations of creative fantasies, the manipulated surfaces of his images separating them irrevocably from “documentary” reality. The theatrical poses and costumes of his models, and the broadly posed gestures and exaggerated facial expressions are, in Mortensen’s words, “pantomimic symbols” representing complex human emotions and interactions. Historical or mythic in theme, the photographs are often both romantic and sensational products of the imagination. Sheherazade, for instance, is dressed to the hilt and languishes against the body of the Sultan who stands before the faint outlines of a mosque; Hypatia, nude and very white in the lit foreground, sprawls helpless and unconscious on the floor while a shadowy robed figure of Death grabs her legs from the darkened background.

There are, in fact, many images of the death, bondage or torture of women in Mortensen’s work and these elaborately staged sexual fantasies can be viewed as precursors of contemporary photographic work by Helmut Newton and others. Many of the post-1930 photographs are take-offs on 17th-century Dutch still-life and genre paintings or explorations of allegorical and literary themes, the latter often more openly gruesome than his earlier works. The Glory of War, for instance, shows the blood-spattered body of a woman (her dress ripped to the waist, of course) lying on the ground and covered by a cross; Human Relations, an allegorical depiction of human cruelty and suffering, depicts the lined face of a man whose eyes are being gouged out by two fingers at the end of a thrusting hand; and The Pit and the Pendulum, photographed from a disturbingly unstable overhead angle, focuses on the horrified expression of the man bound to the floor as the pendulum swings above his writhing body.

Mortensen’s last works—primarily Metalchrome imitations of Renaissance portraits—seem mannered and forced compared to the decadently indulgent, highly imaginative images comprising most of his lifework. Mortensen was a photographer who thrived on excess, and though his themes may look a bit antiquated, there is an energizing vitality in his often outrageous stylizations and his inventive fusions of photography and painting, literature, theatre and film. His work stands as a testimony to the fact that such media marriages can be both happily and eccentrically resolved, and thus opens another door for contemporary photographers who wish to expand the conceptual and creative range of their medium.

Shelley Rice