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The Incredibly Bad Taste of William Mortensen

Posted October 20, 2014 by Aaron Brethorst

I ordered a copy of Ansel Adams' wonderful book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs from Amazon last week for the princely sum of $8.07. As the name implies, the book consists of forty photographs of Adams', along with a narrative describing the how's, what's, why's, and where's of each photo. The book is fantastic, and—if you haven't read it—I highly recommend picking up a copy.

One thing that surprised about reading the book was the amount of invective and disdain present for William Mortensen and the Pictorialist movement:

[T]he incredibly bad taste of [William Mortensen's] photographs smothered, for us, the validity of his contributions to the craft. In 1932, the two extremes of West Coast photography were [Edward] Weston and Mortensen.

— Ansel Adams, Examples, and later reprinted in Popular Photography, August 1983

Pictorialism was the dominant movement in photography from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was characterized by its soft focus and manipulation of its contents. Pictorialists would modify the tones and surfaces of their prints with brushes, inks and pigments.

Photography's acceptance as a 'legitimate' form of art was driven in part by the work of Alfred Stieglitz, a notable early Pictorialist, fixture of the New York photography scene in the early 20th century, and later the husband of Georgia O'Keeffe. Ironically, when they first met, O'Keeffe had no interest in Stieglitz, and was, instead, intensely attracted to Paul Strand, the photographer who was instrumental in Adams' conversion to "straight photography." Eventually, Strand lost interest in O'Keeffe, and she ended up marrying Stieglitz.

To be fair to Stieglitz, his interest in Pictorialism waned in the 1910s, and he stepped away from his Pictorialism-promoting movement, Photo-Secession, as his relationships to a more modern photographic aesthetic and Georgia O'Keeffe both waxed. Interestingly, Adams had a huge amount of respect for Stieglitz, "whose work and philosophy Adams most admired and whose life of commitment to the medium he consciously emulated."

By the end of World War I, Stieglitz and Steichen were shedding Pictorial photography's painterly facade in order to promote an unvarnished display of the medium's natural strength—namely, its capacity for producing a truthful rendering of abstract form and tonal variation in the real world. — Pictorialism in America

A few years after Stieglitz stepped away from Pictorialism, a young William Mortensen embraced the aesthetic as he learned photography from Arthur Kales, a lawyer who shot Pictorialist portraits of many early Hollywood stars.

William Mortensen and Ansel Adams' careers took off at approximately the same time in the late 1920s and 1930s. By then, Adams had been "converted" from his earlier dabbling with pictorialism, which can be attributed to his interactions with Paul Strand, as described in these videos:

As Adams became an increasingly vehement supporter of photographic 'realism', and cofounded Group f/64, Mortensen became progressively better-known for his "grotesque," and "erotic" photography (link is NSFW'ish). Mortensen was incredibly popular, with a series of bestselling photography books, a regular column in the LA Times, and work published in Vanity Fair.

But, between the natural ebbing of artists' support for Pictorialism, and the hard-line promotion of the 'real' by the Group f/64 upstarts, Mortensen's craft was delegitimized in critical circles, and Mortensen himself was almost entirely written out of photographic history:

The critics Beaumont Newhall and his wife Nancy held the same view: Beaumont consciously excluded Mortensen from his grandiosely titled 1949 book The History of Photography, From 1839 to the Present Day. Their distaste would not even allow them to acknowledge Mortensen’s mastery of his craft, although Adams would later concede he was "embarrassed" to find out Mortensen had "anticipated some of my pet ideas of technique: controlled exposure and development of the negative". The critic AJ Coleman even contends that Adams’s "zone system" for exposure was taken largely from articles written by John L Davenport, who himself relied greatly on Mortensen. Even after Mortensen’s death in 1965 from leukaemia, Group f/64 and their flunkies the Newhalls could not stop talking of their loathing for him. Beaumont described his work as "perverse"; Willard Van Dyke, a founder of Group f/64, said "his work was disgusting"; and Adams summed him up with the words, "For us, he was the antichrist."

— William Mortensen: photographic master at the monster’s ball, Chris Campion, The Guardian

Of course, history has a funny way of repeating itself. I've never run across any writings by Ansel Adams on Andy Warhol, but I'm sure he would've grumbled something about Warhol's perversion of photography. And today, our art is overrun by Photoshopping; websites like Phlearn will teach you everything you need to know about mastering retouching and compositing techniques that would have caused Mortensen to cry bromoil tears of jealousy.

As far as I'm concerned, I think that the claims of purity and authenticity championed by the f/64 camp are overblown. Adams loved using deep-red filters that turned his skies black. You can see marked differences in prints of "Moonrise Hernandez" made from the 1940s to the 1970s that belie any notion of the photographic negative as a source of canonical truth. Furthermore, I think that many of Mortensen's works are objectively stunning. Perhaps not as 'straight' photographs (whatever that means), but simply as works of art.

A photograph, despite what many will claim, is not and cannot be an objective source of truth. Brooks Jensen, editor of LensWork, put it quite aptly in his book Letting Go of the Camera: "The idea that photography is truthful is certainly false. You need only search for Ansel Adams' Yosemite. Trust me, I've been there, and it exists only in his pictures."

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