William Mortensen "Nude with Demon" circa 1926-1927
It seems I've been remiss in posting about William Mortensen's work here, particularly his astonishing "A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft" series - and many of you lovely folks have emailed to make sure I was aware of it. Indeed, I've been fan of his for some time, and if you have been, too, it's most likely due to the tireless vision and expertise of gallerist extraordinaire, Stephen Romano, who is not only the primary dealer of original Mortensen photographs, but a font of knowledge about him as well. I had the great pleasure of visiting with Romano this past weekend, where he pulled out picture after picture from Mortensen's oeuvre and regaled me with tales about the man's checkered past and miraculous photographic methods in equal measure.
Mortensen was far ahead of his time: an image manipulator before such a thing was lauded for still camera men, and an artist with a penchant for the dark, demonic, erotic, and uncanny. A close friend of Manly P. Hall's and a colleague of Cecil B. DeMille and other LA para-normals, he sought to create his own odd world: a place where sexuality and horror, pleasure and peculiarity were uneasily beautiful bedfellows. He painstakingly created scenes featuring pinups and starlets recast in roles of witchcraft and monsters, and went as far as creating many of the masks and props himself. He also pioneered techniques such as shooting through screens and gauzes, bending light to create unsettling proportions, and employing collage, montage, and other cut-up practices before it was popular. In fact, his work was dismissed as kitsch at its best, and sacrilege at its worst, both in content and creation, up until very recently.
It's thrilling to see Mortensen begin to get his due nearly a century after he was living and working in the shadowy seams of Hollywood. A huge thank you to Stephen Romano for being so generous with his time and spirit this weekend, and for championing this tremendous, phantasmagorical photographer.