William Mortensen: Beauty and the Beast

William Mortensen was an American art photographer, known for his Hollywood portraits in the 1920s-1940s. Born in Utah, Mortensen briefly studied illustration at the Art Students League in New York City before he traveled in Greece, Italy, Egypt and Constantinople to “sketch for educational purposes.” He returned to Utah, then traveled to Hollywood as an escort for his friend’s sister, the actress Fay Wray.

Mortensen began his photographic career taking portraits of Hollywood actors and film stills. In 1931 he moved to the artist community of Laguna Beach, California, where he opened a studio and the William Mortensen School of Photography. He preferred the pictorialism style of manipulating photographs to produce romanticist painting-like effects. The style brought him criticism from straight photographers of the modern realist movement and, in particular, he carried on a prolonged written debate with Ansel Adams, who variously referred to Mortensen as the “Devil”, and “the anti-Christ.” In addition, the more realistic photojournalism emerging from World War II correspondents, and carried in national newsmagazines, caused Mortensen’s more posed and contrived photos to fade from the public mind. He was largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1965.

Recent years have brought praise for Mortensen’s development of manipulation techniques and a renewed interest in his work. In 2013, one of Mortenson’s students, portrait photographer Robert Balcomb, published a book, Me and Mortenson, about his time studying with Mortensen in Laguna Beach.

All images © William Mortensen.

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