William Mortensen, Secrets of ‘The Command to Look’, Part 2

William Mortensen, Secrets of ‘The Command to Look’, Part 2

Ansel Adams had discribed him as the Anti Christ. Anton LaVay 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”It wouldn’t be long before I had William Mortensen’s ‘The Command to Look’ in my hands. Would there be cryptic symbols to hide into my compositions? Patterns of light and dark to hypnotise the viewer? The newly released issue of this book starts with a fascinating background into William Mortensen and the early editions of ‘The Command to Look’s history.

When first thumbing through the book, I discovered all the same bloody images I already had in Monsters and Madonna’s and what felt like a cold clinical attempt to explain the elements of pictorial photography.  But Mortensen’s visual appreciation to break down the elements of a good figure pose in his book ‘The Model’ was exemplarily, now his attentions turned to pictorial photography, I knew this would be interesting.

Mortensen claimed he had devised a formula to create images that are attention grabbing, thought provoking and enjoyable. Now that sounds like a miracle drug, one hard to swallow. There are a few early books that begin to explain elements of pictorial composition and how it leads to better images. The system Mortensen was describing, may not be quite as stupid as first opinions would express. Draw the curtains and bring out the candles. Remember the first rule of MJM photography’s book blog posts is that you should never talk to others about MJM photography book blog posts. I am about to outline Mortensen’s secret system.

Stipulation 1

The image must grab the viewers attention. Mortensen concluded that the brain decides whether an image is worth looking at so fast that it is unlikely the brain would of fully processed the information containd within it. To satisfy this requirement the image needs a clear, bold graphical arrangement of tones. It is the  simple pleasing masses of the darks and lights that first grab the viewers attention.Mortensen here jumps to a controversial conclusion that certain graphical shapes trigger a fear response in man. The sacred shapes are, A strong diagonal (something moving fast), the triangle (the shape of teeth, knives) , the ‘S’ curve (something creeping stealthily) and the dominant mass. Dominant mass would fit most image compositions, a large solid bulky self contained mass of light or dark that stands in front of you.

The clarity and contrast of the graphical arrangement of the light and dark tones will result in the quality of the impact. An image of speckled light and dark tones, or low contrast; will lack impact. Broad masses of tones that clearly form the composition of the required shapes will be most effective.

Stipulation 2

The subject matter should be interesting. Mortensen concludes that the most important subjects of interest to man are; sex, sentiment and wonder. Now I know my followers won’t be interested at all on the sex chapter so moving swiftly on. Sentiment, the human condition, empathy for the hardships in life. Wonder is the final subject, it’s the darker mysterious elements – shadows, darkness, fear of the unknown. Wonder may be sinister or enlightening, religious.The strength of the subject is defined by how clearly recognisable each topic is represented. The three subjects selected are universal subjects that appeal to all men. To enhance this universality, it’s important to remove evidence of a dateline. Mortensen argues that images cary more meaning when they appear timeless.

‘Is not does’,  is an interesting observation by Mortensen. Mortensen argues that images of a figure preforming an action are less interesting compared to somebody who is just being themselves. Images of people in action will loose the viewers interest faster and are more likely to confuse the viewer, muddying the recognition of the actual subject type.

Stipulation 3

The image must hold the viewers attention. This requirement is basically a description of pictorial composition,  Mortensen describes it very well. Holding the viewers attention is acheived by the eyes journey around the image space, the aim of many great artists. Mortensen describes this constructed guiding force as “movements and hinderance”. Movement is caused by the eyes movement along contours and graduations within the image. He doesn’t seem to elaborate much upon other ways this is achieved such as hand and eye directions etc. Mortensen warns against movements that are too easy, an image with a more complex path is more enjoyable to the eye. Lines that disappear then reappear are more exciting to follow. An image movement that is over complex is too confusing and will loose interest. Care should be taken to avoid the movement travelling out of the frame.Hinderance is good and bad. Hinderance is where the eye has to slow down and take note, to discover detail before continuing its journey. One of the most powerful forms of hindrance is tactile qualities. Representations of skin against clothing, textures, softness, hardness; these provoke powerful responses in man.

Mortensen uses this point to argue against purists who shoot full of detail. For Mortensen; hinderance (detail) is gently sprinkled on points along the path of the eyes movement. It is the slowing down to savour detail before the eye moves on that makes images enjoyable. An image full of detail would prevent any movement of the eye, the full image area would be swamped with the element that hinders the eyes travel.

Conforming forms is where different elements of an image seem to mimic the nature of another. A crocked man in a coat standing in front of jagged mountains. A man with a twisted expression on his face wearing a hat of twisted fabric. A sly look from a man with a snaking wisp of hair falling onto his forehead. These separate conforming elements seem to reinforce the nature of the image, they build upon the universal message that its creator is trying to express. When all things photographed seem to be of the same nature the image takes on much deeper meaning.

‘Echo’s’ is an element of pictorial composition that is more simple a concept but is about visual shapes being echoed throughout the picture space. It is similar to conforming forms but is simply that the rough graphical patterns in one area of an image are being copied elsewhere.

And there you have it, the secret formula in brief summery. The book then goes through examples of how this formula is applied to his own images. I was instantly disheartened to find the first example of this powerful mysterious formula in use, was a rather light hearted, terrible image of “Mr Wu” a tiny dog. It quickly becomes apparent that Mortensen’s main use of pictorial composition was with his costumes fabrics and draperies. I often felt he was reading more into images than they expressed. Nether the less, I feel Mortensen’s critical analysis of pictorial composition is one of the best written. The book finishes with an excellent and entertaining read of how Mortensen inspired Anton La’Vays Satanic Bible. How La’Vay ever linked this book to his satanic ambitions is fascinating, but that’s another story entirely.

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