Grotesque, Occult, and Bizarre Images by William Mortensen, the Forgotten Hollywood Photographer

Photographer Ansel Adams, whose beautiful black and white landscapes full of mountains still grace both museum and office walls, called fellow photographer William Mortensen “the Anti-Christ” for what he did to the art of photography.


In a roll call of the pioneers of modern photography, one name is never invoked. From the late 1920s to the 1950s, William Mortensen was one of the most famous and celebrated photographers in America. However, his subject matter – which veered towards the savage, indecorous, gothic and grotesque – as well as his use of montage and illustration, made him a pariah among the puritanical new guard in photography, led by Ansel Adams, who tried to write him out of history.

Mortensen was the last of the great pictorialist photographers, the movement that dominated early 20th-century photography. Working in Hollywood, he shot many of the leading stars of his day: Rudolph Valentino, Lon Chaney, Fay Wray, Jean Harlow, Clara Bow and Peter Lorre all submitted themselves to the gaze of his lens.

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