William Mortensen

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William Mortensen
Born William Herbert Mortensen
(1897-01-27)January 27, 1897
Park City, Utah
Died August 12, 1965(1965-08-12) (aged 68)
Laguna Beach, California
Resting place
Fairhaven Memorial Park
Occupation Glamour photographer
Spouse(s) Courtney Crawford

William Mortensen (27 January 1897–12 August 1965) was an American art photographer, primarily known for his Hollywood portraits in the 1920s-1940s in the pictorialist style.[1]

Early life[edit]

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.[2]

After his discharge from the army, Mortensen briefly studied illustration at the Art Students League in New York City. In May 1920 he traveled in Greece, Italy, Egypt and Constantinople to "sketch for educational purposes."[3] He returned to Utah, then traveled to Hollywood as an escort for his friend's sister, Fay Wray.[4]


Actress Margaret Livingston, photographed by Mortensen (1927)

Mortensen began his photographic career taking portraits of Hollywood actors and film stills. In 1931 he 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.[5]

His arguments defending romanticism photography led him to be "ostracized from most authoritative canons of photographic history."[5] 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 Ansel Adams variously referred to Mortensen as the "Devil", and "the anti-Christ.""[6] In addition, the more realistic photojournalism emerging from World War II correspondents, and carried in national newsmagazines, caused Mortensen's more posed and contrived photos to fade from the public mind. He was largely forgotten by the time of his death in 1965.[7]

Recent years have brought praise for Mortensen's development of manipulation techniques and a renewed interest in his work.[5]

He wrote nine books about technique in photography in conjunction with George Dunham.[8]

Mortensen was awarded the Hood medal from the Royal Photographic Society in 1949.[9]


  • Projection Control, 1934
  • Pictorial Lighting, 1935
  • Monsters and Madonnas, 1936
  • The Command to Look: A Formula for Picture Success, 1937
  • The Model: a Book on the Problems of Posing, 1937
  • Print Finishing, 1938
  • Outdoor Portraiture: Problems of Face and Figure in Natural Environment, 1940
  • Flash in Modern Photography, 1941
  • The New Projection Control, 1942
  • Mortensen on the Negative, 1940
  • The Female Figure: Flesh and Symbol, 1954
  • The Paper Negative, 1954
  • How to Pose the Model, 1956


  • The King of Kings : as Portrayed by Photographic Reproductions of Scenes and Characters from the Motion Picture, 1927
  • The Mortensen Collection of the Photographic Society of America, 1971
  • The Photographic Magic of William Mortensen, 1979
  • William Mortensen : A Revival, 1998


  1. ^ William Mortensen: A Revival: The Strange Case of William Mortensen [1], retrieved 4 March 2011
  2. ^ Utah State Archives and Records Service, Salt Lake City, Utah; Military Service Cards, ca. 1898-1975; Creating Agency: Department of Administrative Services, Division of Archives and Records Service; Series: 85268; Reel: 27
  3. ^ National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Washington D.C.; Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925; ARC Identifier 583830 / MLR Number A1 534; NARA Series: M1490; Roll #1159
  4. ^ Fay Wray, On The Other Hand: A Life Story, St. Martin's Press, 1989. pp. 27-98
  5. ^ a b c Peres, Michael R. (April 25, 2007). Focal encyclopedia of photography: digital imaging, theory and applications (4th ed.). Focal Press. p. 277. ISBN 978-0-240-80740-9. 
  6. ^ THE COMMAND TO LOOK: The Story of William Mortensen, Part I [2], accessed 4 March 2011
  7. ^ [3] Bess Lovejoy, The Photographer Who Ansel Adams Called The Anti-Christ, The Smithsonian Arts & Culture Section, 4 December 2014
  8. ^ THE COMMAND TO LOOK: The Story of William Mortensen, Part III [4], accessed 4 March 2011
  9. ^ Hood Medal [5], accessed 4 March 2011

External links[edit]