He was born William Herbert Mortensen on January 27, 1897 in Park City, Utah, the son of Danish immigrants, Agnes and William Peter Mortensen who had immigrated from Copenhagen, Denmark in 1883. During World War I, Mortensen served with the United States Infantry from August 6 1918 to May 16, 1919. At his enlistment, he recorded his occupation as painting.
After his discharge from the army, Mortensen briefly studied illustration at the Art Students League in New York City. In May 1920, Mortensen traveled abroad 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, Fay Wray.
Mortensen began his photographic career taking portraits of Hollywood actors and film stills. In 1931, Mortensen 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.
His arguments defending romanticism photography led him to be "ostracized from most authoritative canons of photographic history."
In an essay, Larry Lytle wrote "Due to his approach—both technically and philosophically in opposition to straight or purist adherents — he is amongst the most problematic figures in photography in the twentieth-century… historians and critics have described his images as "…anecdotal, highly sentimental, mildly erotic hand-colored prints…", "…bowdlerized versions of garage calendar pin-ups and sadomasochist entertainments…", "…contrived set-ups and sappy facial expressions…", and finally he was described by Ansel Adams as alternately the "Devil", and "the anti-Christ."
Recent years have brought praise for Mortensen’s development of manipulation techniques and a renewed interest in his work.
He wrote nine books about technique in photography in conjunction with George Dunham.
Mortensen was awarded the Hood medal from the Royal Photographic Society in 1949.
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"Note the quality of contemplative passivity lifts the picture above the merely episodic, and makes this moment much more menacing than it would have been had the figures been actively engaged in fighting and clawing at each other." — Mortensen
About this portfolio: of 20 originals brown-tone silver-gelatin bromoil prints on watercolor stock.
“Mortensen’s work emphasizes the dramatic narrative and staged look of film with a twist of Surrealism” (Michelle de Farra). Dismissed by most photography critics as “problematic” and “a pictorialist gone Hollywood,” 1930s celebrity photographer William Mortensen conducted some of the most ingenious experiments in photographic printing in the history of the art, employing various texture screens and tonal abrasion techniques of his own original design. “Mortensen was a restless and relentless darkroom technician. He invented his own texture screens, an abrasion tone process which employed the use of a razor blade to carefully scrape away emulsion off the print, and used pumice first and then in later years switched to soft carbon pencil to change the tone… He was also master of the bromoil and bromoil transfer processes and the paper negative. During all this he kept his hand in the etching process, learned from his early days in New York” (Larry Lytel). These 20 images on watercolor stock display Mortensen’s range of inventive bromoil printing techniques, from imitations of soft-ground gravure to tones created with razor blade, pumice and etching needle. In Mortensen’s words, “Lots of hard work may go into a picture, yet it must come off easily. That which is consummated in dull drudgery cannot help but be dull.” “Sadly, little remains of Mortensen’s artistic output: most of his negatives are missing, whereabouts unknown. He also left few notes or letters” (Robert Jones).