William Mortensen  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

William Mortensen (1897–1965) was an American photographer, primarily known for his Hollywood portraits in the 1920s-1940s in the pictorialist style. He is best-known for his book Monsters & Madonnas (1936), work which was antithetical to the dominant straight photography of its time. He is known for such photos as Human Relations and L'Amour.



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 (in "Conversations with Ansel Adams : oral history transcript / 1972-1975" [1]) 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.


  • 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
  • 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

List of works

See also

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