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
  • Courtney Crawford (married 1924 – c. 1926)
  • Myrdith Monaghan (married 1933)

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

Early life[edit]

Mortensen was born 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 romanticist 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] In 2013, one of Mortenson's students, portrait photographer Robert Balcomb, published a book — Me and Mortenson — about his time studying with Mortensen in Laguna Beach.

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]


In order of original publication date except where noted.

  • —— (1934). Projection Control. hathitrust.org. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 567991261. Retrieved 2015-01-19. 
  • —— (1973) [1934]. Monsters and Madonnas. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. ISBN 9780405049279. OCLC 643549864, 643549864. 
  • —— (1935). Pictorial Lighting. OCLC 42857350. 
  • —— (1937). The Command to Look: A Formula for Picture Success. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 872528013. 
  • —— (1937). The Model: a Book on the Problems of Posing. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 833593606. 
  • —— (1938). Print Finishing. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 763128067. 
    • Republished —— (2012). Print Finishing. Literary Licensing, LLC. ISBN 9781258401436. 
  • —— (1940). Outdoor Portraiture: Problems of Face and Figure in Natural Environment. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 768060028. 
  • —— (1940). Mortensen on the Negative. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. OCLC 568026105. 
  • ——; Paul, Don M (1941). Flash in Modern Photography. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 567982784. 
  • —— (1942). The New Projection Control. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 567991275. 
  • —— (1954). The Texture Screen. Newport Beach, CA, USA: Jay Curtis Publications. OCLC 70854143. 
  • —— (1954). The Female Figure: Flesh and Symbol. Mortensen series. Newport Beach, CA, USA: Jay Curtis Publications. OCLC 70853997. 
  • —— (1954). The Paper Negative. Mortensen series. Newport Beach, CA, USA: Jay Curtis Publications. OCLC 70853857. 
  • —— (1954). Know Your Negative. Mortensen series. Newport Beach, CA, USA: Jay Curtis Publications. OCLC 70900120. 
  • ——; Dunham, George (1956). How to Pose the Model. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 500685587. 


  • —— (1927). The King of Kings: as portrayed by photographic reproductions of scenes and characters from the motion picture. Based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; produced by Cecil B. DeMille. OCLC 12033875. 
  • ——; Mortensen, Myrdith (1971). The Mortensen Collection of the Photographic Society of America. San Francisco, CA, USA: Camera Craft Pub. Co. OCLC 70861915. 
  • ——; Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies (1971). The Photographic Magic of William Mortensen. Los Angeles, CA, USA: Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. OCLC 6014461. 
  • Dawson, Michael; Dillon, Diane; Coleman, A.D.; Lytle, Larry; Rule, Amy (1998). William Mortensen : A Revival. The Archive (University of Arizona. Center for Creative Photography). Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography. ISBN 9780938262336. OCLC 39818931. 
  • ——; Lytle, Larry; Moynihan, Michael; Coleman, A.D. (2014). American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House. ISBN 9781936239979. OCLC 875240443. 


  • Soltys, Richard J.; Stone, Earl (c. 1963). Monsters and Madonnas: the World of William Mortensen (documentary film). Narrated by Vincent Price. 


  1. ^ Jones, Robert (23 May 2003). "William Mortensen: A Revival: The Strange Case of William Mortensen". photo.net. Waltham, MA, US: NameMedia, Inc. Retrieved 2015-01-24. 
  2. ^ Adjutant General's Office of the War Department. Military service cards, c. 1898 – 1975. Series: 85268, Reel: 27. Salt Lake City, UT: Utah Department of Administrative Services. Division of Archives and Records Service. OCLC 793096427.  See Inventory of Military service cards from Department of Administrative Services. Division Archives and Records Service, i ca. 1898-1975.
  3. ^ National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) (January 2, 1906 – March 31, 1925). Passport Applications. Washington, DC. OCLC 866104303. 
  4. ^ Wray, Fay (1989). On The Other Hand: A Life Story. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. pp. 27–98. ISBN 9780312022655. OCLC 17917980. 
  5. ^ a b c Peres, Michael R. (April 25, 2007). Focal encyclopedia of photography: digital imaging, theory and applications (4th ed.). Amsterdam; London: Focal Press. p. 277. ISBN 9780240807409. OCLC 499055803. 
  6. ^ Lytle, Larry (2010-04-23). "THE COMMAND TO LOOK: The Story of William Mortensen, Part I". thescreamonline.com. Retrieved 2015-01-29. 
  7. ^ Lovejoy, Bess (2014-12-04). "The Photographer Who Ansel Adams Called The Anti-Christ". Arts & Culture. smithsonianmag.com. Washington, DC: Smithsonian. Retrieved 2015-01-29. 
  8. ^ Lytle, Larry (2010-04-15). "THE COMMAND TO LOOK: The Story of William Mortensen, Part III". thescreamonline.com. Retrieved 2015-01-29. 
  9. ^ "Hood Medal". rps.org. Bath, UK: Royal Photographic Society. Retrieved 2015-01-29. 

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