Tuesday, January 06, 2015


A cartload of thanks to Mike for turning me on to this photographer! I'd used the photo above in a previous post but I had no idea who did it. I thought some anonymous glamour photographer just got lucky. Boy, was I wrong! I should have known that only a fine artist could have made a picture like that.

Here's (above) another of Mortensen's portraits, this time of writer and mystic Manly Hall.

Above, a bust of Manly by an unknown artist. Haw! A room with that picture and that bust must have made quite an impression.

You'd expect Mortensen to have been the subject of universal acclaim but that wasn't the case. Read this excerpt from his Wikipedia entry: 

Geez, even Ansel Adams disliked him. Apparently modernists saw his return to Romantic, touched up, Steiglitz-type photography as retrograde. Even Steiglitz failed to support him.

Mortensen worked for the Hollywood studios but his real passion was for occult subjects (above).

He must have had a hard time keeping his professional and private life separate. Here's (above) a portrait for hire that must have shocked the people who commissioned it. At first glance it's a conventional portrait but stare at it for a moment and you get the creepy feeling that the picture is staring back at you. It's as if you're being watched by someone in Hell.

Mortensen was certainly flaky. He's the kind of guy who, if he were alive today, would be obsessed with Atlantis and crystals and hippie theories about levitating babies. Even so, he was capable of remarkable depth.

Mortensen's black and white portrait of the young girl reminds me of Delacroix's even more drastic "Orphan Girl" (above). Delacroix's girl is simultaneously ignorant and dignified. It seems to make a theological point, that even the most debased humans have a divine spark. Looking at this picture you can imagine the repugnance Milton's Satan felt when looking at humans. You can imagine him saying, "What kind of obscene joke is this, to give the gift of nobility and free will to creatures so horribly stupid?"

Mortensen took the old, unresolved issues of philosophy seriously and by doing so threatened to derail the whole project of modernism. I guess that's why he aroused such fury in other artists. They saw the 20th Century as sunlight streaming into a room previously dominated by mildew and shadows.

Okay, that's enough of this!


Unknown said...

I just really like how subtle and varied the lighting is on a lot of these portraits here. Very cool stuff.

And I left a comment on your previous post if that's okay with you.

Joel Brinkerhoff said...

I discovered Mortensen around Halloween, which seems fitting.

His technique produced some amazing results that at first glance I would have mistaken as drawings and not photography.

I understand he was into some occult practices too, but I don't know to what degree.

There's a few good images of his on the web and some expensive books complied of works, (none at my library).

I would like to fine a good biography and see what made him tick. Know of any?