William Mortensen

Discussion in 'Photographers' started by Ian Leake, Jun 2, 2008.

  1. Ian Leake

    Ian Leake Subscriber

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    Mortensen was mentioned in a critique of one of my photos yesterday (Kayt's Back). He's not someone I'm very familiar with so I've done a bit of scrabbling round on the web. He seems to have been quite influential at one time, but then fell from grace as he went out of fashion.

    I'm very interested in him, but I'm also very interested in how he's perceived by contemporary photographers. So I have two questions:
    1. If Mortensen was alive today, what could he teach us?
    2. And if you could go back in time and teach him something, what would it be?
     
  2. Paul Howell

    Paul Howell Member

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    Mortensen was very much a product of his times and location, Hollywood in the 20s and 30s. Ansal Adams and others did their best to discredit him. the University of Arizona has both Adams and Mortinson's archives, just goes to show. I understand that he is somewhat collectable. To answer your first question, his books on lighting are still sought after so I guess lighting and possing. the answer to number 2, the AZ or BZS.
     
  3. cowanw

    cowanw Member

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    Reading his book on the Negative I suspect Mortensen was well aware of the zone system. He merely concentrated on one aspect of it.
    I on the other hand would teach him how to fight a fight like the Clintons' fight
     
  4. David William White

    David William White Member

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    Mortensen practiced and advocated a form of portraiture that emphasized careful composition, lighting (proper use of 'local tone' and 'texture' lighting), and careful exposure (to retain skin detail). Like you.

    His method of acheiving low contrast portrait scenes was slight underexposure and development 'to completion', meaning dilute developer and extended development times -- similar to how we develop paper prints 'to completion'.

    He described methods of working paper negatives with graphite pencil to reduce blemishes and deliver more 'abstract' or 'idealized' final prints. He even had quite a list of heuristics for matting, framing, etc.

    If you find his images you will see how they differ quite a bit from, say, the later works of Edward Weston. No doubt that the f/64 group and 'straight photography' movement did his art in.

    I think the comparison is quite apt, and I think he would be a big fan of yours, as are we.

    David.
     
  5. John Bragg

    John Bragg Member

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    Reading some on Mortensen and his development technique, it appears that Adams and the proponents of the Zone system held him in contempt because of his tendency to develop to D max and select one of a number of bracketed exposures to print from. It does seem to make some kind of logic to reduce one of the variables to a fixed constant but you can see how Adams would have reacted....
     
  6. doughowk

    doughowk Subscriber

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    Some interesting articles in #s 5 & 6 of World Journal of Post-Factory Photography ed by Judy Seigel. Some such as A.D.Coleman have tried to rehabilitate Mortensen's standing. I believe Seigel said that Mortensen wanted to be a painter, and much of his portraiture strikes one as overblown. I do have a couple of his books - The Model, which you may like; and Print Finishing which makes me cringe at how far he would go in retouching a print. Of course, if he were alive today, he would love digital.
     
  7. Paul Howell

    Paul Howell Member

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    It always seem me that there was something beyound just tech. Adams had good relations with other non Group 64 photogs, someone may know more of the details.
     
  8. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    I'm slowly accumulating a small collection of some of Mortensen's books. They are all interesting, and I learn something from every single one.

    I'm sure he would have been a lot better known without the smear campaing by Ansel Adams!
     
  9. David William White

    David William White Member

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    Just another couple of comments regarding Mortensen, selecting negatives, and the zone system...

    Yes, besides carefully arranging his lighting, he did bracket and select the best negative. I submit that this is necessary to learn what you are doing right and wrong with exposure. Surely no one will disagree...

    I might be simplifying this somewhat, but my take on it is that the zone system (or equivalent) is essential for resolving scenes that extend right to or just beyond the latitude of film. Being very care not to loose the scene to shadows while retaining highlight detail. Careful measurement and processing is required to capture and render landscape scenes, for instance. It is somewhat less useful for controlled, low-contrast portrait sessions, dawn or dusk photography, and the like, where you are trying to acheive long tonal ranges out of your midtones.

    His print finishing may make some cringe, but so would those of the bromoilists here.

    But, to each his own...it's all good.

    D.
     
  10. David William White

    David William White Member

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    I think it was just philosophy...they probably never met...

    Adams, Weston, etc. of course tinkered with pictorialism earlier on, but believed that photography would never come into its own as an art form if they continued imitating the great painters. This means no selective focus, no diffusion, or anything else 'painterly' or 'abstract'. Realism vs. idealism.

    That's certainly enough to cause a schism.
     
  11. Paul Howell

    Paul Howell Member

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    The irony is that both are archived at the UofA, although from I what I understand Adams was very unhappy. I took a summer class when I was college from Minor White, in the 60s, by then Mortenson was forgotten and Adams along with the ZS was becoming famous.
     
  12. gandolfi

    gandolfi Member

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    I guess the comment was from me.. (?)

    I have the upmost respect for Mortensen.
    and he is kind of living.. (as I teach a lot in regards to his observations).

    I have several of his books, The Model is fun!
    half of it is pure gold (regarding posing, and lighting - and that was where I made the connection to your image.. "protruding from nowhere" he would call it).. the "make - remake" idea, and so on..

    the other half is dated, at least. but fun reading.
    (if the model is more than 25, then forget it... - if her albows are ugly, so would her breasts proberly be... - 3 types of breasts: American, european and asian.... - "cross eyed breasts" - wide eyed breasts"... and funniest of all: "DON'T have fun in the studio! if you're having fun, all is lost.......)

    here in Denmark, the book has now been re-photographed (with one of my students as model) and will be published in an 20'th century language..

    so the problem with his books is not the knowlegde. (he had eyes as a hawk).
    But more the language - the drawings (instead of images) and so on.
    young people seem to have trouble, taking it seriously.

    by the way: I like mortensens images much better than the ones of Ansel Adams (or most of them).

    the Model is easy to find on the bay.
    you'll find it inlighting and fun to read. (I hope)...
     
  13. frotog

    frotog Member

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    I have come to regard Mortensen as a zany contrarian, morally opposed to the brutal realism of the camera. This trait extended to his craft as it's articulated in his excellent book on lighting - "expose for the highlights and develop for the shadows". Mortensen got me into stand development.

    His photographs are over-the-top - sort of like a heterosexual version of Pierre et Gilles. He treats his subject matter with an awe-inspiring audacity that I find quite refreshing in this era of deadpan.

    I believe that his photographs are evidence of his having enjoyed seducing his models.
     
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  15. Mark Sawyer

    Mark Sawyer Member

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    Well, it's nice to know he had *something* in common with Edward Weston!
     
  16. Peter De Smidt

    Peter De Smidt Member

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    I highly recommend getting a copy of The Model for anyone who takes people pictures. I know of no better book on the subject. Yes, I don't always agree with Mortensen, but his opinion is always well expressed and interesting. The Model isn't very expensive, and so pick one up! The next most useful would be his book on composition, The Command To Look. Unfortunately, it can be kinda expensive.
     
  17. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    Sigh.

    Mortensen and Adams were both representative of Photographic craft
    between the World Wars in America. Probably the most apt comparison
    to Mortensen would be Weston; same generation. They were both Pictorialists
    in the WW1 era, Weston grew out of it to become one of the great Modern artists,
    while Mortensen achieved the final decadent flourish of Pictorialism.

    Adams was eager to defend his friends and mentors (Weston and Stieglitz)
    whom Mortensen attacked cheerfully in print to his adoring followers. To make sense of this,
    you have to appreciate that the 'photo world' was generally - at the time - unappreciative of
    Weston while Pictorialism was everything.

    The thing is this: the followers of Stieglitz and Emerson ( Strand, Weston, Adams, etc)
    believed that a photographer could make genuine art by understanding the nature
    of Photography. Weston represented the belief that without special lenses, exotic papers,
    rare processes, a photographer could make art.

    Mortensen ridiculed the idea, preaching the necessity of the 'hand of the artist'.

    Both Adams' and Mortensen's writing provide valuable insight into the state of the craft in the pre WW2 photo world. And Mortensen offers a great view of the craft which conflicted perfectly with the 'by the book' doctrinal, conformist art of the post WW2 era (think Lawrence Welk, and other hard to kill relics of Victorian sentimentalism) that was JUSt as hard on Adams.

    The dramatic irony of the post Mortensen world is that the 'California School' has become the mechanical and dogmatic successor to Pictorialism, not the rule-breaking era of Weston, Ansel, and Brett. The concern, as in Mortensen's day, has become 'the right film, the right developer, the right format.' Weston had no time for this, scornfully observing that he could print on a bath mat if it gave him the picture he wanted.
     
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  18. David William White

    David William White Member

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    Isn't photography wonderful? With just a few simple optical devices and a shelf of chemistry, we can each produce entirely unique imagery, whether we studiously measure and control to acheive our vision or whether we just have fun and take what happens. Whether we limit ourselves to very small apertures, or finalize our art on the enlarger baseboard, or bleach out what the film captured and mop it all back in the way we wanted. Photography is so basic yet explorations and realizations will never end. Perfect breeding ground for externalizing our view of the world and the purpose of art, and we all have different views of the world.
     
  19. Anscojohn

    Anscojohn Subscriber

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    Mortensen has always left me cold; but then, so does most of Adams' work.
    I once saw an original print of Pepper Nr. 30. I could not leave the room at the art museum. I sat and looked at it for almost half an hour. The print had a three dimensional quality which made me feel I could reach around behind the pepper with both hands. Edward and Brett Weston "do" it for me, when considering their entire outputs. Individual photographs by many fine photographers--including some on this newsgroup stand out to me. That includes Adams. Mortensen's work, though. It may be "art,' but it ain't photography. Harrumph!
     
  20. bowzart

    bowzart Member

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    Yes, Adams and Mortensen were not exactly appreciative of each other's work, that is true, but really, it had nothing much to do with the zone system. The ZS became a religion only later, and Adams was not part of the congregation. Maybe we owe that to Minor, at least in part.

    The active polemic was actually between Mortensen and Weston in the pages of Camera Craft, which was published in San Francisco in the 30's. The text of the articles is extremely interesting because it expresses the turn of conventional vision away from the kind of idealization of classical cliché themes that we see in movies of the period (Mortensen sold lighting equipment of his own design, consulted in Hollywood ,and knew most of the movie personalities, many of whom were his models). His work is really a part of the Hollywood kind of vision, from that particular era. He was a consummate master of lighting technique and also in the application of light to produce desired effects on the psychology of the viewer.

    Weston's argument represented the emerging modernist vision. You will see his attitudes stated explicitly in the Daybooks. If you haven't read them, it is a good read. The photograph should do what the camera does best; represent the subject objectively, faithfully. Likewise, for comparison, the modernist would demand that painting do what painting is; that is, the subject of painting is paint. The camera needs to be used as what it is, not to be confused with a brush.

    In the view of Mortensen, the picture was the thing, whatever it took, and he would do it; his images are as much or more paintings than they are photographs. It is interesting to look at some of his examples that show the before and the after examples, where he shows the photograph and then what resulted from his manipulations. He'd add castles. He worked from drawings, then set up the photo session to give him the image to manipulate. The photograph was where he started. It is also instructive to study his work in relation to HP Robinson and Rejlander; they worked in similar ways. Robinson drew and collaged his ideas, working up to the final version. Very similar, and similar, also, to practice current in advertising even today. Think of the concept, draw it up, and hand it to the photographer for realization.

    The argument revolved around issues like pubic hair. Mortensen thought it was tasteless and obscene to include it in a nude; Weston thought it was obscene and tasteless to pretend that it isn't there. Weston showed it, Mortensen erased it. That pretty much sums it up. Differing morality, differing views of the purpose of art.

    When the dust settled, the f/64 vision became the dominant for some forty years or so. Mortensen faded into the background, still selling lighting stuff in Hollywood. However, we still have pictorialists, but they are no longer called pictorialists. Most prominent, of course, would be Jerry Uelsmann. And even among the f/64 people (it wasn't a real group, and had no dogma, just an alignment; Weston himself dropped out after the first meeting) there is a really blurry line. Minor White's work takes the representational aspect and sends it a packin', his pictures a sort of visual mysterium. Yet, we have a hard time wedging him into the pictorialist box, even though his roots were deep in the Portland (Oregon) Camera Club. I suppose the difference might be that he left the recognizable or created scenes that seemed imbued with something from another world, rather than the reflections or expressions of conventional mythology or social cliché.

    When I was a student in the 60's, to be called a "pictorialist" would be a challenge to fight. We were supposed to be true believers. Pictorialism, however, is no monolith. There is not just one "pictorialism" but many. A lot of it has been pretty darn exciting. I'd definitely recommend to anyone a look at Mortensen. If you ever get a chance, check out his _Monsters and Madonnas_. Also, if you find it, some of the work that was done in the camera clubs prior to WWII. The Seattle Camera Club, for example, had many Japanese members, many of whom were subsequently interned in the relocation camps. Much of the work that came out of that club was just simply incredible.

    We are lucky that we don't have to believe in one or the other anymore. Or even to believe that we have only the single choice between the one and the other. Well, we never did have to, but in the 60's, most of us did.
     
  21. Ole

    Ole Moderator Staff Member Moderator

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    The polarisation seems to have been a lot stronger in the USA than in Europe, though.
     
  22. Ian Leake

    Ian Leake Subscriber

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    Fascinating! I can't wait to read to read his books. I can't say that I've noticed a difference between American breasts and European breasts - perhaps I haven't been looking sufficiently hard. But ugly elbows? I don't think it's possible for elbows to be ugly...

    Seriously though, while some his work that I've seen is not to my taste, there is much that I've found which is. It'll be interesting to see what he had to say on posing and lighting.

    Gandolfi - do you have any more details of the book you mentioned? And is it going to be in Danish?
     
  23. gandolfi

    gandolfi Member

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    no news I'm afraid (I can ask around)..
    I think thay ment it to be in danish, but are they clever, they will make it in english (too)..
     
  24. Ian Leake

    Ian Leake Subscriber

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    Yes, hopefully they will have a dual language text to internationalise the book. If you hear anything more then please do shout.
     
  25. gandolfi

    gandolfi Member

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  26. cowanw

    cowanw Member

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    European breasts: possibily the more modern Scandinavian sub type.
    Regards
    Bill