from: Jim McNitt
We must then look to his photographs—which do not upon first glance look like photographs—as a purposeful style conceived to create controversy. He constructed his photographs to be photographs, but to be as opposite in technique from the look of conventional straight photography as he could make them. Mortensen said, "However reprehensible morally, the doctrine that the ends justifies the means is certainly true and valid aesthetically. No limitations may be laid upon the use of technical aids, other than that they must not manifestly violate the essential quality of the medium"
William Mortensen, Human Relations - 1932 "Hatred is frequently the emotion that lies behind grotesque art... These were the days when stocks were stopping dividends, when lives of thrift and industry were being wiped out by the foreclosing of mortgages and the closing of banks, when Japan was carving herself a large slice of China. Everywhere there was the spirit of 'Take what you can, and to hell with your neighbor.' Those who were strong seemed to be, in sheer wantonness, gouging the eyes of humanity." -- Mortensen
Mortensen's obscurity today is mainly due to his championing of Pictorialism, a force within photography that promoted retouching, hand-worked negatives, chemical washes, and an artistic, painterly approach that soon faded with the advance of modernism.
William Mortensen, Preparation for the Sabbot "Herein lies the reason for the equivocal effect of grotesque art on many people: the material is unfamiliar, and, by ordinary standards, unpleasant: yet it calls forth a deep instinctive response. Thus they are torn between repulsion and attraction..." -- Mortensen
At the time, Mortesen was most widely published photographic writer of his day, and he used his bully pulpit to publicly ridicule Straight photography as dogmatic and ill-conceived. An incensed Adams took to calling Mortensen the “Antichrist” -- and worked behind the scenes for decades to discourage historians and museum curators from exhibiting or acknowledging Mortensen’s work.
Even without Adams’ intervention, Mortensen’s legacy would no doubt have suffered. His taste and approach to photography anticipated what critics call “Postmodernism,” but he was badly out of step with his own times. Mortensen was the nation’s most skillful Pictoralist in an era that increasingly celebrated Straight photography. He was an enthusiast of erotic melodrama during the straight-laced 30s, 40s and 50s. He was an internationalist in a period when the art establishment was searching for American icons. He was influenced by the Renaissance at a time when Modernism was ascendant. Above all, he was aesthetically outrageous just as the mainstream art world was recoiling against experimentalism. The following is excerpted from an article by Larry Lytle in TheScreamOnline that explores the strange photographic legacy of William Mortensen...