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:
- If Mortensen was alive today, what could he teach us?
- And if you could go back in time and teach him something, what would it be?
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.
Originally Posted by Ian Leake
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
"There are a great many things I am in doubt about at the moment, and I should consider myself favoured if you would kindly enlighten me. Signed, Doubtful, off to Canada." (BJP 1914).
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.
Originally Posted by Ian Leake
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.
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....
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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.
van Huyck Photo
"Progress is only a direction, and it's often the wrong direction"
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.
Originally Posted by John Bragg
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!
-- Ole Tjugen, Luddite Elitist
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.
I think it was just philosophy...they probably never met...
Originally Posted by Paul Howell
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.