I discovered upon William Mortensen whilst researching vintage books on photographing models. I have always been charmed by Victorian portraiture and this book from 1920, whilst not of Victorian vintage, I had hoped may skim a light across classical conventions in posing.
The book chosen that dropped through my letterbox was “The Model” by William Mortensen. It soon became apparent that this little tattered book on posing models eclipsed anything I’d previously read. Mortensen’s personality was engaging, a strong opinionated force, typical of many a Victorian authority on the arts I had ever read. He seemed at times patronising with an air of mysoginy, as dislikable as much as fascinating.
Mortensen must of slaved his critical eye over every element of posing the human figure. You cannot help but be humbly impressed by what must of been years of visual study and opinion forming. With many of todays examples of good poses as expressed by model photography books, you can often spot a Mortensen grave error and feel, yes, he has a point.
Soon my life needed more Mortensen and that was to come when I spotted Monsters and Madonna’s at a reasonable price. Dispite the obvious assumption regarding the title – a book containing images of beautiful woman and grotesque monsters, the title is more metaphorical. To Mortensen ‘Monsters’ was the mechanical nature of the camera whilst ‘Madonnas’ was the art wanten to be expressed. With a man so intense and particular on the technical, yet visual aspects of posing models – what he had to say on art in general could be enlightening.
Monsters and Madonnas was something of a deflation of hopes. For one the book seemed more of a portfolio of his work along with some artistic rhetoric. It felt like the concept of art in photography was still fairly radical at this time and his written thoughts still a fumbling in the dark.
Reading some of Mortensen’s descriptions of his images conception, you cannot help but feel a Mortensen photoshoot is often an exercise in costume play, shooting for hours hoping that some idea will materialise, followed by some photographic manipulation. In many images there is an air of flippancy, a light heartedness that leaves you unmoved.
More revealing is Mortensen’s most passionate drive is to defend his position in photographing naked or semi naked girls. Almost the whole chapter “The Nude” in Monsters and Madonnas is his views on why public opinion is so outdated and that there is nothing wrong in his subject matter. Whilst I would expect this point to be raised, you do sometimes feel too much of what could of been a great book has been devoted to this war on post Victorian attitudes. Its obvious Mortensen must of felt under attack on this issue.
If my faith in Mortensen to reveal greater insights into his art was to be completely shattered; my journey into his work would end with the last pages of this book. Mortensen’s darker images, witches, warlocks and rituals where of a different order to his other photographs. These images had no flippancy about them, preconceived and referenced to satanic sounding literature and rituals.
I felt Mortensen knew more then he was letting on. I felt he may have more to say on his Art. This curiosity was kept alive by cryptic mentions of the contents of another book. There where few copies in circulation and too expensive for such a risky purchase. I had heard it was his seminal work, a book he felt was ground breaking.
Ansel Adams had discribed him as the Anti Christ. Anton La’vay, founder of the satanic church had even dedicated the satanic bible to no other than William Mortensen. It was said he had discovered the psycology of why we look at images and with this knowledge he had devised “The Command to Look”