William Mortensen (1897 1965)

"Portrait of Myrdith Monaghan as a Witch" c. 1930, Silver Print



OCTOBER 15 - DECEMBER 30, 2014


October 22, 2014, Brooklyn NY - The works of photographic artist WILLIAM MORTENSEN (1897 - 1965) will be featured in a one person exhibition at the STEPHEN ROMANO GALLERY, Brooklyn.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of this seminal photographic artist's passing, this exhibition is a tribute to the artist's vision and legacy.

The works of William Mortensen were featured in the exhibition "Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop" At the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York, January 27 2013 and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. February 17 - May 5, 2013, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, June 2 - August 25th, 2013.

William Mortensen was featured in the exhibition "Secession Secession" organized by Colby Bird at the Fitzroy Gallery in New York in May 2013. Mortensen was also featured in the exhibitions "Welcome to the Dreamtime" and "Mysterium Cosmographicum" at the Stephen Romano Gallery in 2014, as well as VICE Magazine’s 2014 Photo Show "Trompe L'Oeil" at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn NY. Mortensen was also featured at Pulse Art Fair NYC 2013 as well as the Metro Show both in 2013 and 2014, which received coverage in the NY Times. William Mortensen has received coverage most recently in Juxtapoz magazine, Vice, NY Times, Huffington Post, Dangerous Minds, The Guardian, and several others. The exhibition is also in celebration of and named in honor of the release of two books published by Feral House Press, the exhbition's namesake "American Grrotesque" and a reprint of "The Command to Look".

Several of the works in this exhibition were acquired from William Mortensen's personal collection, as well as the artist's estate and many will be on view for the first time.

Background: William Mortensen (1897 - 1965) was an American Photographer, primarily known for his Hollywood portraits in the 1920s-1940s in the pictorialist style, as well as being a seminal visionary artist in the development of manipulated photography as an artform.

Internationally renowned photo critic A.D. Coleman writes in his introduction to Stephen Romano Gallery's catalog "A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft (2014):

"The inclusion of William Mortensen in our current understanding of the history of photography marks an end to the long-term injustice done to the man and germinal work. Anathematized, ostracized, and eventually purged from the dominant narratives of 20th-century photography due to the biases of a small but influential cluster of historians, curators, and photographers, Mortensen plunged into an obscurity so deep that by 1980 most considered him unworthy of even a footnote. Yet the approach to the medium that he advocated, under the rubric of pictorialism, included practices central to photography of the past four decades: events staged for the camera, image text combinations, photomontage, alternative processes, and more." A.D. Coleman continues "Morensen not only exemplified those tendencies in his own widely exhibited and published works but argued vigorously for them in cogent, controversial articles that appeared in the photo magazines of his day, therein contending articulately and persuasively with such vehement antagonists as Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall. Furthermore, he invented several unusual darkroom processes, devised and marketed some print making tools, ran a school for photographers in Laguna Beach, CA and authored a series of highly regarded tutorial texts that guided several generations of practitioners."

A.D. Coleman concludes: "So, inevitably, the cycle of appreciation and disregard that affects art and artists in all media returned him to our attention. Regrettably, however, the neglect of Mortensen and his contributions in the last years of his life and for several decades thereafter resulted in the apparently haphazard dispersal of his archive: master prints, work prints, negatives, manuscripts, correspondence, notes... scattered and, for the most part, presumed lost. So we must cherish those salvaged bits and pieces that survive. If the critical literature on this notable figure seems thin, we can attribute that in good part to the scarcity of primary source materials. The recovery of any substantial slice, such as these works from the estate of Hereward Carrington, brings us a step closer to grasping the full scope of his work as a picture-maker and the relation of his images to his ideas." William Mortensen is in several prominent visionary collections such as The Museum of Everything collection in London, The Hammer Museum, The Metropolitain Museum of Art NY, The National Museum of Art, as well as in the personal collections of many contemporary artists.

Biography: William Herbert 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.

After his discharge from the army, Mortensen briefly studied at The Art Student's League in New York. In May 1920, Mortensen traveled abroad in Greece, Italy, Egypt and Constantinople. He returned to Utah, then traveled to Hollywood as an escort for his friend's sister, Fay Wray. Wray's parents, who were devout Mormons, charged Mortensen with being the young Faye Wray's chaperone. Mortensen began his photographic career in Hollywood as a chance encounter with Cecil B. DeMille, for whom once he arrived in Hollywood, he was unknowingly working as a handyman and gardener to earn money.. Once they met, DeMille was so impressed with the young Mortensen he hired him as an on set mask maker (examples of which will be in the exhibition), and as Mortensen saw photographers working on location he came up with the novel idea of taking the promotional photographs as the filming occurred as oppose to the grueling process of restaging the action entirely and holding still, and was subsequently hired by DeMille to do so. Mortensen would then in his down time use the available resources of the movie set's extras and props, "King of Kings" and "East of Zanzibar" for instance, to produce his own personal art.

"Comnsumatum Est" 

Mary of Magdala

Mortensen at this time also became acclaimed and sought out as one of the leading portrait photographers in Hollywood, often convincing aspiring actresses to take their clothes off and using them as subjects for his own art. In 1931, as Mortensen's star was rising, Faye Wray's mother paid an unexpected visit to Mortensen's studio where she discovered to her horror nude photographs of models, and possibly Faye Wray herself, engaged in hedonistic and occult montages. Enraged, she had Mortensen destroy all of the glass negatives, and it was Faye Wray's mother's intention to bring her young daughter back to Utah. The heads of , whom were in the pre production stages of "King Kong" w Faye Ray, however, convinced Ms. Wray that they would extricate Faye Wray from Mortensen by blacklisting him in Hollywood. Mortensen was finished.

Mortensen moved to the artist community of Laguna Beach, CA where he opened a studio and the William Mortensen School of Photography. It was here, away from the fast lifestyle and many distractions of Hollywood, where he was able to focus and develop in the early 1930's what are considered to be his masterworks.

Mortensen's investigation involved the pictorialism style of manipulating photographs to produce romanticist painting-like effects. Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of "creating" an image rather than simply recording it. Mortensen was seminal in developing techniques for using textured screens, using several negatives in the building of a photographic image without resorting to novelty, and many other developing and printing techniques. Mortensen proselytized these techniques, most overtly from 1934 - 1956 when Mortensen co-authored nine books in conjunction with George Dunham on photographic techniques, including "Projection Control, 1934", "Pictorial Lighting, 1935", "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", "Mortensen on the Negative, 1940", "The Female Figure: Flesh and Symbol, 1954", "The Paper Negative, 1954", and "How to Pose the Model, 1956", as well as "Monsters and Madonnas" (1936) and "Command to Look" (1937) both now considered to be rare seminal books.

Of the importance of Mortensen's writings author and Mortensen scholar writes "To appreciate Mortensen's proper place in the history of photography, it is necessary to explore the underlying ideas that inspired his preternatural imagery. Mortensen laid out the basics of his technical and philosophical approach to picture-making in a seminal 1934 essay and in his first four books on methods. But it is his fifth and most compact book, The Command to Look (1937), with its innovative application of psychology to photography, that serves as the real master key for unlocking the secrets of William Mortensen's singular vision."

The style itself thrived until the 1940's, and Mortensen is regarded as "The father of Pictorialism" Mortensen's commitment to this style however, 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... He was described by Ansel Adams as alternately the "Devil", and "the anti-Christ".

Adding to this antagonism with the "proper" photographic community of his time was his working methods which had greater affinity with painters than with photographers, who would austerely edition works in limited numbers, assuring each print was identical to the next. Mortensen experimented boldly, fearlessly and unself-consciously. He would work with a razor in the darkroom, destroying any picture unworthy of his name. What survives, we regard as satisfactory to his meticulous standards, weather he chose to sign it or not, or use his studio seal. Of this Mortensen would conclude and advise to other photographers "Throw pictures away recklessly. Every photographer saves too many pictures. Without complication, tear up your proofs and decimate your prints. And having gotten rid of them, forget them. Remember that every inferior picture that you discard raises the average excellence of those that remain."

Art Critic Tom Patterson writes of Mortensen:

"If he were resurrected today, almost 50 years after dying a marginalized and maligned figure in his field, photographer William Mortensen would surely have no trouble finding work or creative kindred spirits. His influence and affinities to his work are evident across a range of art and popular culture. Techniques he pioneered for manipulating photographic images--a practice for which he was once disparaged--now have digital equivalents that are widely employed and accepted in photography. A few decades of hindsight reveals him as a visionary and a consummate artist ahead of his time."





William Mortensen: Early 20th Century Photography’s Antichrist

by Caire Voon


William Mortensen: American Grotesque at Stephen Romano Gallery




American GrotesqueEarth Magic, and All the Lost Souls, are on view at Stephen Romano Gallery in Brooklyn, New York through November 30.

Bt Roger Thompson

The Photographer Who Ansel Adams Called the Anti-Christ



In the DUMBO arts area of Brooklyn at 111 Front Street you will find The Stephen Romano Gallery spaces. Romano is passionate about art that comes from a dark perspective, pieces often originating from magical thinking with elements that embody diabolical, grotesque and horrific modes of expression. Currently he has three artists in his main space. 

By Magus Peter Gillmore


William Mortensen: The Anti-Christ of American Photography?

by Bob Duggan



Witches and Peasants by Eve Khan



William Mortensen's 20th Century Photos Are

Some Of The Most Beautifully Terrifying Images Ever Made


LA Times -- 'American Grotesque' resurrects William Mortensen's photos



"A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft" July 2014
"Monsters and Madonnas" August 2014










For further information and visuals please contact:

Stephen Romano Gallery romanostephen@gmail.com



William Mortensen
Untitled c 1926 - 1927
from the series "A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft"


William Mortensen
The Mark of the Borgia, ca. 1930



William Mortensen
Chained Nude With Monk c 1926 - 1927
from the series "A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft"


William Mortensen
Nude with Demonic 1926 - 1927
from the series "A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft"

click on images to enlarge

more featured works on Facebook


Mortensen, Oddfellows Angels, Kris Kuksi, Cellarius at METRO SHOW NEW YORK Jan 2013.


William Mortensen, METRO SHOW NEW YORK Jan 2014.




A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft


published by Stephen Romano Gallery 2014




Monsters and Madonnas a book of methods





About Stephen Romano Gallery

Stephen Romano Gallery is a new addition to the DUMBO arts community, having opened its doors in April of 2014. Prior to opening the current gallery, Stephen Romano was a private art dealer for 15 years specializing in masters of self-taught and visionary artists such as Henry Darger, Martin Ramirez, Charles Dellschau, Bill Traylor, Darcilio Lima, and many others. The Gallery's most recent exhibition "Mysterium Cosmographicum" was well received and reviewed.

Stephen Romano has been a participant in many art fairs including PULSE and The Metro Show.

In 2013, Stephen Romano produced a seminal 330-page monograph on Texan visionary artist Charles Dellschau designed by Marquand Books and distributed by DAP. The book generated several positive reviews from a wide variety of publications such as Bookforum, Raw Vision Magazine, The Atlantic, Slate, Antiques and the arts and Design Observer among many others. With an introduction by Stephen Romano, the book features the final published essay by renowned art writer Thomas McEvilley, as well as contributions from the founder of The Museum of Everything, James Brett, and the curator of Smithsonian Museum of Aerospace, Thomas Croutch. In the same year, Romano also published the first ever post-mortem retrospective catalog of works by Darcilio Lima and most recently a catalogue of a previously unknown photographic series from 1925 by William Mortensen "A Pictorial Compendium of Witchcraft," with an introduction by A.D. Coleman. Most recently, Stephen Romano Gallery had the honor of publishing a catalog of works by artist Pavel Kraus with an essay by David Ebony.

recent press .




wwA train - HIGH STREET F train - YORK STREET 5 minute walk from either station.